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Poles apart

Some communities worry about danger, blight posed by long-term use of makeshift double utility poles

Lowell Mayor Bud Caulfield stands next to what he calls the most dangerous double pole in the city. Lowell Mayor Bud Caulfield stands next to what he calls the most dangerous double pole in the city. (Photos By Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

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For Lowell Mayor Edward “Bud’’ Caulfield, double utility poles are the weeds in his garden.

Created when a utility company attaches a new pole to an existing one in need of replacement, double utility poles are prevalent in many a landscape from Lowell to Somerville. But some community leaders and residents argue that they are a primary source of curbside blight.

“The problem with this is if you don’t address the weeds, they’ll overtake the garden,’’ Caulfield said. “Some of them are hazardous and they’re an eyesore.’’

Of the approximately 300 double poles in the city, one on Moore Street may be the most menacing: leaning toward the sidewalk, jagged and splintered, it can pose a hazard for those walking by, Caulfield said.

“Let’s say a vehicle hits a pole and on top of the pole there are many, many wires and they can’t at that instant remove all the wires and put [up] a new pole,’’ Caulfield said. “So the Scotch tape solution is, ‘Let’s put up another pole and we’ll put the wires around it.’ And that can stay like that for years.’’

Fed up, Caulfield recently filed a motion, which the City Council approved, to have city leaders meet with utility officials to expedite the removal of these poles. Representatives from Comcast, National Grid, and Verizon met with Caulfield and other city officials and recently agreed to a removal schedule, starting off with Moore Street, Caulfield said.

“There are many streets in Lowell that have five, six, some even eight double poles on them,’’ Caulfield said. “Once [the utility companies] start on a certain street, they’re just going to stay on that street until they address them all.’’

Once up, double poles can exist in a community for years, despite a 1997 state law mandating that they be removed within 90 days from the time the new one was installed. The problem with the law, many local officials argue, is that it is unenforceable. The Massachusetts Municipal Association is backing a bill filed with the state Legislature that would “provide some teeth’’ to the law by allowing cities and towns to impose a $1,000 fine on utility companies for each double pole that is not removed within 90 days, said Matthew G. Feher, senior legislative analyst for the association. A similar bill lingered in committee and never got to the House or Senate floor in 2005.

“It’s somewhat ludicrous to me that there’s a law that’s not enforceable like that,’’ Feher said. “Communities are kind of handicapped because they don’t have the ability to enforce said measure.’’

A hearing was held Sept. 9 on the bill, which is currently before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Feher said.

With no provision to levy fines or other penalties on the utility companies, some town and city officials contend their hands are tied.

“In terms of double poles, that’s been the bane of our existence,’’ said North Andover Town Manager Mark Rees. “If you drive by any town, you’ll see hundreds of these things, and they go on for years and years and years. They should follow the law and there should be language in there to make them enforce it.’’

North Andover officials are trying to do away with poles completely in at least one part of town, adopting a bylaw in May that requires the removal of overhead wires and poles to be replaced by underground wiring in downtown’s historic center, Rees said. Under the bylaw, utility companies may recoup the cost of the work by imposing a 2 percent surcharge.

According to the latest state Department of Public Utilities data, as of last April there were about 27,000 double poles statewide. Pole owners NStar, National Grid, and Verizon are required by the department to file a double pole status report every six months, said Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the state agency. The next report, in which the companies update the state on how many double poles have been installed and removed in that time period, is due Nov. 1, Williams said.

Most poles in the state are owned either by an electric company or by Verizon or, in some instances, co-owned by both. It is the responsibility of the owner to maintain, install, and remove the poles, which are used by at least four different entities, including electric, telephone, and cable companies, as well as the municipality, said Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro.

While community officials often complain of double poles installed after one is damaged by a car accident, most double poles occur as a result of infrastructure upgrades and demand for more power, said Deborah Drew, spokeswoman for National Grid.

Once a new double pole is set up, the only way it can be removed is if all the wires from the old pole are transferred to the new pole, said NStar spokesman Michael Durand. That, according to the utilities, is where the rub is.

“Nobody likes double poles, and neither do we,’’ Santoro said. “There will be times where the transfer doesn’t take place as quickly as one might hope. It’s really just a matter of scheduling crews. By and large, [complying with the state law] is done, but there’s no doubt about it - there are times that it doesn’t happen within 90 days.’’

The utility companies rely on a centralized database indicating where there are double poles and which wires are yet to be transferred. While the database has improved coordination among all the companies using the poles, scheduling still depends on each company’s workload, which can delay the removal process.

“It’s a bit tricky to coordinate, because the folks that are doing the removals of those old poles are the same crews that are working every day to make sure we continue to provide reliable electric service,’’ Durand said. “In our case, we try to get our equipment removed as fast as we can. We don’t have any control over Verizon’s scheduling, nor do they have over ours, so we’re not policing each other. . . . From town to town, it’s going to vary, who is still on the pole and who isn’t.’’

In the meantime, communities will have double poles as part of their landscapes. But it’s not an urgent matter for everyone. In Haverhill, Mayor James J. Fiorentini said his wife really hates them, but, “I don’t think it’s a big deal. . . . They’re ugly, but there are so many other important things to do. It’s just not a high priority item for me.’’

In Medford, the City Council flexes its permitting power to get the utilities to comply.

“We’ve gone so far as to not give them certain permits or give them dates when they need to do some work, until they remove the double poles,’’ said council president Breanna Lungo-Koehn. “We try to get them to take down 10 a month, which is more than they put up per month. . . . They know that we mean business.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

The 10 North communities with the most double poles as of April 30:

Community Poles
1 Salem 361
2 Malden 333
3 Lowell 322
4 Lawrence 287
5 Melrose 271
6 Haverhill 265
7 Stoneham 244
8 Woburn 228
9 Billerica 211
10 Somerville 192
SOURCE: Mass. Department of Public Utilities
Data does not include Georgetown, Ipswich, Merrimac, North Reading and Rowley, which are served by their own municipal light and electric companies.