Plug pulled on town's holiday lights tradition


Only a few days before Christmas, the little town of Lonaconing is not quite as merry as usual. And it's a lot less bright.

While nearby towns sparkle with lights, this tiny coal-mining community in the mountains of Western Maryland lies still and sparsely decorated. Unless you count the blowup Grinch on Main Street.

Some locals put up the Grinch as a prank - and a protest - after a utility pole dispute forced the town to abandon its 68-year tradition of stringing colored bulbs across Main Street.

Having canceled its annual lighting ceremony, Lonaconing is celebrating with a Nativity scene and storefront garland, but none of its old-fashioned lights.

"Everyone is disappointed," says Mayor Jack Coburn. "We feel we've been discriminated against. How can you tell one town that you can't do this when all the surrounding communities have lights on their poles?"

Next to the Grinch, in a park at Main and Union streets, is a sign that says that the entire town knows "who really stole Christmas from Lonaconing."

Folks here are quick to point the finger at two corporate culprits: Verizon and Allegheny Power.

Neither company is happy about being cast as the Grinch. The companies say they had no choice but to warn the town that its planned decorations did not meet electrical safety standards and could be dangerous.

Stringing holiday lights from telephone and power poles is a tradition in Maryland and across the country in hundreds of small towns that have few street lamps. It's no big deal, says Allen Staggers, Allegheny Power's director of corporate communications, unless a hazard is reported.

"We don't go around inspecting everyone's Christmas lights," Staggers says.

Lonaconing's troubles are unique, he says, prompted by the town's desire to upgrade its display, which led to a lengthy engineering review.

"Had they just put their lights as they did for umpteen years," he says, "they'd probably be up now."

Long before Thanksgiving, town officials tried to work something out with Allegheny Power and Verizon, which owns the poles.

Unable to do so - and faced with less-than-cheery tidings from Verizon that dressing up its poles "without permission is illegal and can be prosecuted as trespassing" - the Town Council reluctantly voted Dec. 5 to leave the lights boxed up in the firehouse.

Councilwoman Sandra Wilt says time was running out, leaving the council with no choice.

"Nobody wanted to put anything in writing," she says. "Nothing had been approved yet. The thing that's really upsetting is, we wanted to do it the right way. We didn't just throw them up, and so we got slapped in the face."

For Lonaconing, lighting Main Street was a cherished ritual that survived as the town's silk and textile mills went out of business and its population shrank from 2,289 in 1950 to 1,178 today. More than two generations of families were dazzled by the big, shimmering bulbs.

The town strung its lights from the 40-foot Verizon poles and hung wreaths with electric candles on them.

Neighboring Midland and Barton hang similar decorations from their utility poles.

Eventually, bulbs burned out and pole outlets no longer worked. So, last summer, a committee began collecting money for new lights and quickly raised $3,000, says Michael Staup, the publicity chairman for the committee.

Everyone was getting into the Christmas spirit, though it was barely autumn, when the town called Allegheny Power to inspect the pole outlets and install additional ones and dusk-to-dawn sensors.

It seemed a simple request, but it triggered extensive inspections and discussions about safety and legal risks.

The National Electric Safety Code requires at least an 18-foot clearance for overhead decorations. Lonaconing's were three feet too low, Staggers says.

Allegheny Power and Verizon worried that a coal or lumber truck could bump into the poles and bring down the wires. Moreover, the utilities pointed out that if their employees had to repair the phone, cable or electrical lines atop the poles, they could get hurt if they had to climb around decorations.

Last month, Lonaconing decided to forgo new lights, Staup says, and put up only wreaths.

After walking through town in a downpour Nov. 16, inspecting each pole, Allegheny and Verizon engineers gave the town permission to put up 12 candlelit wreaths, fewer than usual, if some brackets were moved and power lines switched.

Eleven days later, Staup received an e-mail saying that even those modest decorations were unacceptable. Allegheny and Verizon engineers conducted further inspections Dec. 1 and made plans to start some work after Dec. 7.

By then, the town was fed up. Folks considered the bureaucratic back-and-forth ridiculous, Staup says. After all, the same lights had hung from the same poles for six decades.

Spokeswoman Sandra Arnette says Verizon "made every effort to work with the town" and was willing to keep trying to get some lights up until Christmas if necessary. Verizon puts safety first, she says, and has figured out lighting solutions with other towns. This year, it worked closely with Havre de Grace.

"We feel bad," she says. "We really wanted to make it happen."

Coburn, the 41-year-old mayor, splurged on a couple of reindeer to make his hometown look more festive.

That's it for now, he says, but "we're going to fight until we get our lights," he says.

Next year, he says, he wants Lonaconing to be back to its old sparkly self at Christmas.

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