A quiet evening last month turned into a homeowner’s nightmare for Lisette Baumgardner.
After water began puddling on her laundry room floor, Baumgardner traced the source to a toilet and shower drain in her bathroom. A contractor installing fiber-optic cable in her north Charlotte neighborhood had damaged a sewer line – and now sewage was backing up into her home.
Fortunately, city workers responded quickly, and contractor Ansco & Associates is now paying to have damaged floors and walls replaced, Baumgardner said. But weeks later, her home is still a construction zone and much of her downstairs furniture is in storage.
“It’s been stressful,” said Baumgardner. “No homeowner wants to be in this situation.”
While many have cheered the arrival of super-fast Google Fiber and AT&T broadband systems in Charlotte, others have discovered the construction can be a major headache. After the Observer wrote about these disruptions in December, a number of readers, including Baumgardner, reached out to share their own stories.
City officials acknowledge the construction process can be painful, but say the contractors have the right to install their equipment – if they follow the rules. AT&T and Google say they work to minimize disruptions and work to react quickly when problems emerge.
Utilities who do work in the city must get a permit and follow certain standards, including working around trees, using appropriate drilling techniques and notifying residents with door hangers, said Phil Reiger, assistant director of Charlotte’s Department of Transportation. But residents need to remember that contractors are allowed to work in the right of way that typically stretches 8 to 10 feet in from the curb, he said.
If a problem occurs, residents should call 311, he said. The city wants to know about problems and can send out an inspector to take a look at a contractor’s work.
“We have inspectors that ensure that work is being conducted complies with the plans that were permitted to make sure the utilities are building what they said they would,” Reiger said.
The inspectors can make contractors make changes or issue fines, although the amounts are relatively small.
Since September 2015, city officials cited contractors for ordinance violations more than 40 times for $21,300, data show. That included $14,200 in general violations and $6,700 for closing a portion of a right-of-way without the proper traffic control.
Fines ranged from $100 to $1,800. Ansco, a contractor for AT&T, was cited the most: 17 times for $8,400. Bechtel, which does work for Google, was cited six times for $2,100, including fines that also mentioned another subcontractor.
Ansco wouldn’t comment. Bechtel did not respond to requests for comment.
If a company causes damage to a resident’s property, they are responsible for paying for repairs, Reiger said. In the case of a damaged water line, for example, the contractor would have to fix the homeowner’s pipe and pay for higher water bills that resulted, he said.
“There are some instances where we have heard of utilities that have hit water lines,” Reiger said. “Charlotte Water has come to repair them, but as a result of the repair they wiggled something somewhere else. It can create leaks you can’t see.”
If customers think a contractor has caused a leak, customers should call 311 so Charlotte Water can research the problem, said spokesman Cam Coley. “We work with each customer individually to address a high bill concern regardless of cause,” he said.
Reiger said he has heard of some damage to sewer lines and finds those particularly troubling.
“Just from a personal perspective those make me feel really bad,” Reiger said.
As he has done in the past, Reiger urged residents to be patient as construction continues around Charlotte. Often, he said, the city gets calls from residents when contractors are in the middle of their work, when construction looks its worse. When they’re done, contractors are required to put down seed and straw, but not sod, he said.
“If citizens will give those utilities a chance to get the construction done and restore the property and button things up,” Reiger said, “more times than not the issues that our citizens are complaining about sort of take care of themselves.”
Sometimes, however, residents suffer problems that are more involved than disturbed lawns.
In December, Will Norman, a University City resident, said Ansco hit an underground power line in his neighborhood, causing power surges that caused damage to his furnace and electronic products throughout the house. So far, he said, he has spent more than $700 out of pocket for repairs. He is working to get repaid by a company called USIC that was responsible for marking the location of underground utilities before construction started.
“Just about everything electronic in my house right now I have concerns that it could die out,” Norman said. USIC did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Norman and Baumgardner urged residents to call the city and the contractors quickly and to stay on top of the issue every step of the way.
“Make sure as soon as it happens, you start contacting the companies and reporting stuff as soon as you see it,” Norman said. “And even when they say they’ve already called somebody, make sure you call them, too.”
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed
Who should you call?
If fiber installation is causing problems in your neighborhood, the city of Charlotte says to call 311 for assistance. Google also has a hotline at 877-454-6959. AT&T said it lists a phone number on the door hangers it uses to alert residents to upcoming work.
Where is service available?
Google Fiber and AT&T have been building ultra-fast broadband networks around Charlotte. Here is where service is available and headed next:
▪ An AT&T spokesman said its service is available in parts of Charlotte, Asheville/Greenville, Belmont, Cornelius, Huntersville, Mint Hill and Salisbury, and elsewhere in North Carolina. The company plans to expand in parts of Davidson and Pineville in the future.
▪ According to Google Fiber’s web site, the Prosperity Village neighborhood is “connected,” and customers in Highland Creek can “sign up today.” The site shows other areas of Charlotte under construction.