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May 5, 2017
Natasha Chen, KIRO News
Real estate agents in the Puget Sound region are now allowing for possible delays in installing ‘for sale’ signs on front lawns, because of an interpretation of the “Call Before You Dig” law.
After recent outreach by Puget Sound Energy, real estate agents have now been told to call 811 to have a crew check for utilities underground, before a sign company can dig a hole for the ‘for sale’ sign. This process is supposed to take two days, not including the day that the person calls. Weekends are also not included in the two-day window.
In a hot housing market where more than 100,000 homes were listed in Western Washington in 2016, real estate agents said this process complicates something that used to be simple.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re going to have a delay in a market that’s starved for new listing inventory. And it’s going to add time to the process to get homes on the market,” said Wendy Carrington, a real estate broker in Seattle.
“Frustration is the perfect word,” she said.
Call Before You Dig Law
The ‘Call Before You Dig’ law was enhanced in 2013 to add an enforcement arm. Following federal guidelines, the state of Washington created a Dig Law Safety Committee under the Utilities and Transportation Commission to oversee enforcement.
Puget Sound Energy and other utilities can file complaints with that committee when someone violates the law.
Charlie Gadzik, the customer safety communications manager for PSE, said the utility received funding in May of 2016 to start outreach on the updated law.
“There’s been advertising done, but advertising doesn’t really reach the people who are holding the shovel. So what is new is PSE has put people in the field to visit people who are actually digging and let them know about the law and what the law requires.”
That includes sign companies, installing ‘for sale’ signs on front lawns. A local sign company representative told KIRO 7 that they were surprised to find out they were required to comply because they had previously considered themselves exempt.
Who is exempt from calling 811
The revised code of Washington states the following situation is exempt:
“An excavation of less than twelve inches in depth on private noncommercial property, if the excavation is performed by the person or an employee of the person who owns or occupies the property on which the excavation is being performed.”
Wendy Carrington, a real estate broker, said agents and sign installers do a service for the homeowner. Therefore, they believed they were exempt.
But Gadzik said sign installers are contractors, not employees who receive W-2 forms from the homeowner.
He said, “In the context of digging, the exemption is narrowly written so if you’re a homeowner, you don’t need to be subject to the same requirements that a commercial operation would be…The distinction isn’t really about how you’re paid. The distinction is what kind of risk are you subject to.”
The definition of ‘employee’ in this law would have to be determined by the Utilities and Transportation Commission, if a complaint reached the commission for a hearing.
Such a hearing to determine that question hasn’t happened.
“There have been questions in the past, but there hasn’t been anything formally brought to the commission,” said Anna Gill, a UTC spokesperson. “It just really depends on your own perspective, whether it’s somebody that you’re contracting with or somebody that you actually employ.”
The cost of 811
PSE pays for a third-party service to inspect and locate utility lines. Gadzik said PSE spent about $6 million on that service in 2016.
He said they performed about 300,000 locates last year. If the concept of calling 811 is new for real estate brokers, that could mean more than 100,000 more calls to 811, based on the number of new home listings in Western Washington in 2016.
Gadzik said that increase in compliance could mean a higher cost, which is absorbed by PSE customers.
He said the outreach is working; PSE saw a 35 percent decrease in damaged utility lines where PSE communicated with workers last year.
The risk of hitting a utility line
Most utility lines are installed more than 2 to 3 feet underground.
While it is unlikely that a sign post installed less than 1 foot below ground would hit a line, UTC Spokesperson Anna Gill said it can happen.
“Grades change over time. Something that might have been buried two feet down may actually be less because over time, weather and other construction activities can change that level,” Gill said.
Gadzik said one sign installer had hit lines three times in the last five years. He did not know whether those incidents were caused by ‘for sale’ yard signs or larger signs.
Wendy Carrington said that in her 25 years as a real estate broker, she had never seen a yard sign hit a utility.
Violators will be fined
The law states that a first-time violation of the ‘Call Before You Dig’ law would cost someone $1,000. A second violation within three years costs $5,000.
If someone fails to call about a location close to a large transmission line, that could result in a $10,000 fine.