Dig It! Safe-Utilities Law Stakes Claim over Campaign Signs

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Terry Tang

PHOENIX (AP) — With city elections in Phoenix next month and 2016 races around the corner, Arizona regulators are warning people that they might need to pull up stakes on the many campaign signs on lawns and street corners.

Signs installed without prior inspection could create danger around utility lines and bring hefty fines, according to a longtime state law.

The Arizona Blue Stake law mandates that anyone doing excavation must have utility lines marked first. It’s a law that was enacted in 1974 and has been enforced by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Recently, the commission has been reminding campaigns and campaign supporters that the law applies to signs staked into turf. Anyone who wants to plant a sign must call 811, the nonprofit call center that arranges for utility locators to mark the locations of utility lines at no charge. The wait is normally about two days.

Arizona 811 spokeswoman Kimberly Noetzel said the call center receives about 505,000 calls annually from individuals and companies.

Robert Miller, the commission’s program manager who oversees the state’s various pipelines, said there is a common misconception that even digging a couple of inches won’t cause any harm.

“Honestly, that is a statement that we hear on a very, very regular basis — not just from the owners but even professional excavators, people who do this for a living,” Miller said. “That’s why the law does not address any depth specifically. Utilities can just be barely under the surface or 3 or 4 feet deep.”

There is potential of causing serious injury or damaging utility, gas or fiber-optic lines, Miller said. Even nicking a pipe could cause damage that could have impact years later, he added. The only exception to the Blue Stake law is the use of yard tools for gardening, he said.

Representatives for Southwest Gas, Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service said they can’t recall incidents where campaign signs caused significant damage. But all three encouraged using the 811 service.

The commission only pursues violators if they receive complaints or spot anyone in the act. Usually, first-time offenders get a warning. Subsequent offenses are subject to a fine between $250 and $5,000. Miller estimated his office issues $30,000 to $50,000 in fines each year.

The managers of a Phoenix campaign for an initiative to expand the city’s transportation systems had no idea the law applied to campaign signs. The MovePHX campaign has been handing out hundreds of free “Proposition 104” signs before the Aug. 25 vote. The 18-by-24-inch signs use lightweight metal stakes that are more than a foot long. Miller said metal stakes are risky to install because they could go through coaxial cables that provide cable and fiber optic services.

Bill Scheel, MovePHX’s campaign manager, said he disagreed with the signs being hazards.

“I’m amused by this. They are saying if I want to play croquet in my backyard, I need to ‘blue stake’ it,” Scheel said.

He has no plans to start mentioning the law every time someone takes a sign.

“These people request a sign. They put it in their yard. I’m sure they know where their coaxial cable is,” Scheel said.

Miller said he wishes campaigns would urge voters to follow the law.

“They’re not required, but it should be their responsibility to ask their people campaigning to do it safely,” Miller said. “And that’s all we’re concerned about — safety.”


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