Sparks fly in fight over power lines

Annapolis: In a dispute over who should move dangerous wires nearby, the city is preventing a homeowner from living in his new dream house.

March 02, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Bryan Levy can see his dream house clearly.

It stands, nearly complete, just yards from the small one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, their 3-month-old son and two Labradors.

Levy, a regional sales manager with U.S. Aluminum Corp., a custom construction company, built the large house - worth more than $400,000, he said - next to his mother's house last year in Eastport, an Annapolis neighborhood. Though it has been nearly finished since November, the family can't move in.

In dispute are high-voltage power lines that run dangerously close to the house - less than two feet from the left side.

The city will not let the family move in until the wires are moved. Levy wants Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to help pay to bury the lines - at a cost of more than $50,000 - but the utility says that's not its responsibility. The family also blames city inspectors, who, members say, told them the wrong amount of space needed between their house and the lines. The city denies that.

Meanwhile, the Levys are living in cramped quarters in his mother's home, paying a mortgage on a house they cannot occupy and trying to figure out how to foot the bill to bury the wires with their savings spent. As they wait, rain seeps in through the unfinished corner of the house near the power lines, warping and staining the floorboards.

"Some days, I wish the wind would just come blow it down so we could start over," Levy said of the house. "I wake up every day - I can't sleep - and think, `How am I going to come up with the money?'"

For Bryan and Tanya Levy, both 29, the house was supposed to represent their new life. Married for five years, it is their first house, where they planned to raise their first child. Though they expected to be in the house before their son's birth, Bowen Levy was born in November. That's the month that all the work on the house stopped and the fighting began in earnest.

It took more than a year to get the permits to begin building the house behind the one Bryan Levy grew up in, he said. With his mother ill, living nearby would allow him to help take care of her. In May, the couple began construction of the house they describe as their dream. Almost 4,000 square feet, the house has five bedrooms and a large playroom for their son.

All along, the Levys knew the electric lines would be a problem, but they never guessed how big.

As construction began, Levy - who did much of the work on the house himself - said a city building inspector told them that the lines would be too close to the house: They would need at least 4 feet between the house and the lines.

Not a problem, Levy thought, as construction continued. The pole was slanted. Surely it would be easy to get the pole straightened, giving the few extra feet needed to clear that 4-foot margin.

He told the city that he would take care of it. Then he turned to BGE.

A few years ago, a garage that stood where his house is now caught on fire when a wire was downed by lightning. BGE cut the family a check to replace a lawn mower destroyed by the fire but did not straighten the utility pole.

Levy contends that means BGE admitted part of the problem was the company's and should pay to straighten the pole. But BGE spokesman Charles B. Welsh says the company was just being generous in replacing the lawn mower, which it says was damaged in "an act of God."

But there was more bad news for Levy. BGE told him that he needed more than 4 feet between his house and the wires. The lines carry 13,000 volts of electricity, BGE told him. That requires a minimum of 10 feet between his new house and the lines.

There is no way to move the pole that far without messing up the whole line of poles, BGE said. Levy's only option is to pay to bury the wires.

"[Levy] is either saying that our rate payers or our shareholders should undertake the cost to have that situation corrected," Welsh said. "We are saying, `You created the situation. It is your responsibility to bear the cost of having it corrected.'"

The company offered to finance the expense for him at 15 percent interest - an extra debt that Levy said would cost him $670 a month for 30 years.

Meanwhile, every storm causes more damage to the unfinished side of the house. Levy asked the utility to turn off power to the lines temporarily so he could cover the exposed parts of the house. BGE refused, saying it would affect service to 126 homes in the area. Levy then tried to cover that corner with a tarp, but BGE sent crewmen to remove it, saying it might blow off and touch the lines.

Levy and his attorney filed a complaint with the state's Public Service Commission, which found last week that the whole mess is Levy's responsibility because the pole was there first.

Levy then turned to the city. He built the house believing he needed only a 4-foot margin between the lines and house because that's what the city told him, he said.

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