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All is not bright in old Md. coal town

Usual holiday glow is zapped in utility dispute

LONACONING, Md. -- Every year, Christmas lights glittered in this little coal town.

They were like ordinary light bulbs, but tinted in every color, and the Goodwill Fire Co. strung them, pole to pole, building to building, and they cast a magical spell.

Every year, the lights reminded the older folks of times past, when Lonaconing was a thriving hub, where the silk mill hummed on Georges Creek and there was a movie theater on Main Street where Santa gave out oranges.

Those days are gone, and so are the twinkling lights. Disputes with utility companies about safety violations have left the town dark this December.

''There have always been Christmas lights -- even during World War II," said Betty Fazenbaker, 81, pausing at noon at the town luncheonette. ''I don't know who is to blame."

Around Lonaconing, that remains a point of contention.

Verizon Maryland Inc. and Allegheny Power, which own the utility poles in this Western Maryland town, say safety was at issue. The companies' officials say that they offered to help the town correct national electric safety code violations and get the lights up in time for Christmas, but that the town chose not to.

The town officials say the offer was too little and too late.

The trouble started in July, when after doing things the same way, year after year, something changed. The old light bulbs were becoming unreliable, so the town's Christmas Light Decoration Committee decided to invest more than $3,000 in new strings of lights for the holiday.

The committee members also decided they would need to install new outlets and sensors on the utility poles. So with an eye toward a Nov. 20 lighting ceremony, the town sent a work order to Allegheny Power.

But the work order started a new set of wheels turning.

''If they had just gone up and hooked up the lights like in the past, they'd be up there right now," said Allegheny Power spokesman Allen Staggers. ''Because they asked for more power connections, that triggered an inspection process that is not done year in and year out."

The bad news started to hit in November.

First there was a letter from Verizon to the mayor about the dangers of illegal attachments to utility poles. It warned ''that posting of any signs, banners, Christmas decorations or balloons onto poles without permission is illegal and can be prosecuted as trespassing."

Then the Maryland State Highway Administration got involved. Town officials were informed that most of Lonaconing's poles were only 40 feet tall, instead of the required 45 feet, which would mean the Christmas lights would hang too low over Main Street.

''If a wire is hanging at 15 feet, a truck could snag it. It could snap a pole, and someone could get seriously injured," Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said. ''We never said the town should not hang the lights. But safety is the first thing."

Finally Allegheny Power agreed to send a lineman to town the second week of December to work on some of the acceptable poles.

But the town would need to remove all existing lighting attachments, install new attachments on each pole to meet specific safety standards, and hire specialized workers to do it, something the town's tiny budget could ill afford.

Overwhelmed, the Town Council voted unanimously to abandon the lights this Christmas.

In one last attempt to make a holiday statement, town workers have inflated a large green Grinch, the famous Christmas-hating character created by Dr. Seuss.

The Grinch now smiles his fiendish smile in Fountain Park, right next to the Verizon office. He guards a carefully lettered sign that reads, ''Who really did steal Christmas from Lonaconing?"

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