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Tom Clyde: Let there be light

I celebrated Pioneer Day in true pioneer fashion, in the dark. A tree fell over and knocked out my power line. It pulled the vertical mast off the wall of the house and the leverage mangled the meter box. The tree hit the ground with enough force that it shook the house. Oddly, with it all on the ground in a tangle of wire and branches, the power was still on.

The anxiety about the house catching on fire was a bigger problem than being in the dark, so I called the power company. They came out, and a very nice lineman gave it the same analysis. He knew it was going to be a problem with the holiday, but having looked at it, he really had to shut it off. It was the right thing to do. Live wires on the ground on the path to the kids’ treehouse was a problem.

I got an electrician out to fix it at weekend rates. He has done a lot of work around the ranch for me through the years, and I always know it will get done right. Everything was rebuilt, a new meter box, a new main breaker, everything good to go. The lineman had given me his cell number so I didn’t have to navigate the repair through Portland on the weekend. The power company couldn’t have been more responsive.

He took one look at it and said, “Oh, no.” Apparently replacing the mangled meter box crossed some mystical line between “repair” and “new work.” The whole thing now required a building permit from Summit County, and an inspection. That wasn’t going to happen on the weekend. Light another candle and call back on Wednesday.

The saddest part was the pathetic Roomba, dead in the middle of the living room, waiting for instructions from the mothership that weren’t going to come.”

I scavenged meals from what I had and freeloaded at my sister’s place, with all of her kids and grandkids and who knows how many potential cases of plague lurking in that shared bag of potato chips and dip. I still had water, which would have been an issue for houses on a well. The break from TV news was soothing. It still seemed terrible. The saddest part was the pathetic Roomba, dead in the middle of the living room, waiting for instructions from the mothership that weren’t going to come. My sister pointed out that our mother lived without electricity until she was in high school. That didn’t help.

The electrician filed for an online permit Sunday night, and called Monday morning to see if they could get an inspector out early. And then things got weird. The automated permit system the county uses cross-references addresses to other data. The software determined that my house is in the flood plain, and therefore the permit had to be reviewed by Engineering. Anything in a flood plain starts with an expensive survey of the 100-year high water level. I’d be lucky to get power by Thanksgiving.

Summit County has a lot of stupid regulations, and as a long-time member of the Eastern Summit County Planning Commission, I’ve been responsible for many of them. Maybe it’s karma. But requiring a flood plain review to re-connect the power line to an existing house seems misguided. Neither the house nor the river has moved in the last 40 years. It was hard to see what the flood plain review would contribute. I did something I don’t like to do, which is call a councilman before breakfast to see if he could pull this out of purgatory and get the power connected.

I was actually standing in Home Depot pricing a generator when I got a call from the county. There would be an inspector at my house in a couple of hours. The inspector got there just in time for a Biblical thunder shower. The electrician had come back just in case. We discussed the situation huddled in the tractor shed until the rain passed. Trees always fall on power lines on holiday weekends. If this had been January, the house would have been uninhabitable and the plumbing would have frozen. The tractorshed committee on emergency power restoration had some practical ideas on how to solve it.

A cynical person would say the lesson here is to leave the live wire on the ground until Monday. Another lesson is that it pays to know the council members well enough to be comfortable calling before breakfast. But that isn’t really available to everybody.

The cool thing is that the response from the county was quick, effective and logical. Everybody from the councilman to the building inspector, lineman and contractor sees a need to work out an emergency protocol that balances getting the power back on against setting the house on fire if the repair isn’t done right. They will get it solved, and despite a fridge of rotten food, the county has been exceptionally responsive to fixing the situation. This won’t happen again. The next guy will get hooked up quickly. That’s actually really good local government.

Anyway, thanks to all the people who got the lights back on.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.


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