On Lambs Lane in Southeast Austin, the words “Google Fiber” can set neighbors off into a firestorm of anger, frustration and even tears.
For months, more than a dozen neighbors on the modest street have said they’ve battled the Internet giant and its contractors over construction eyesores and October flooding they say was aggravated by workers leaving behind materials that blocked several storm drains.
Two of those residents, Arnulfo and Dolores Cruz, can hardly contain their sobs when they recall Oct. 30, the day 2 feet of water rushed into their home and ruined most of their possessions.
“We are ruined,” an emotional Arnulfo Cruz, 51, says in Spanish between waves of tears. “We don’t understand. I don’t know what to do. I don’t sleep at night because I don’t know what is happening tomorrow.”
Google drew national attention — and enthusiastic support locally — when it announced in April 2013 that it planned to bring its superfast Google Fiber service to Austin. At 1-gigabit speeds, a user can download 25 songs in 1 second, a TV show in 3 seconds and a high-definition movie in less than 36 seconds, according to industry figures. Area officials hailed it as a boon for Austin's economy and its technology sector.
But after the work began to install the infrastructure to bring that high-speed Internet service to neighborhoods across the region, hundreds of Austin residents have accused Google Fiber and their contractors of causing damage and disruption along with the installation process.
Last year, 363 complaints connected to Internet providers’ construction and installation activity were filed with the city of Austin’s 3-1-1 services, city records show. Of those, 254 were tied to Google Fiber or its hired contractors, such as Florida-based company MasTec Inc. Competitors AT&T and Time Warner also saw about 100 combined complaints in 2015 as they ramped up construction to boost their own services.
The complaints include home, landscape and lawn damage, trespassing and other disruptions, such as trucks blocking private driveways.
Google Fiber declined to respond to any specific allegations made against it or its contractors. Coral Gables, Fla.-based MasTec also declined to comment, referring questions to Google Fiber.
“Google Fiber’s top priority is being a good neighbor. If Austinites are experiencing issues, we want to hear from them,” said Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, Google Fiber’s community impact manager.
“As we build one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Austin’s history, we’re constantly working with our contractors to improve the quality of their construction work,” she said. “We’re committed to ensuring that our contractors perform within industry standards and resolving the complaints we receive in an appropriate manner. Our construction hotline is open 24/7, and we welcome questions, concerns and invitations to neighborhood meetings and events. We want to help as much as we can.”
The company’s construction hotline is 1-877-454-6959.
The city of Austin’s role is limited when it comes to handling residents’ complaints with Internet providers, city spokesman Bryce Bencivengo said.
“If someone calls us and complains that there has been a problem, we take that information, and if no city property has been damaged, we give them a number to call” the responsible provider, Bencivengo said.
Rondella Hawkins, the city’s telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer, said the level of complaints is not surprising, as the region hasn’t seen a project on this scale.
“People are not used to this level of activity,” Hawkins said.
However, she said city officials “are expecting the providers to be good corporate citizens and respond in a timely manner to the complaints.”
According to a dozen legal experts interviewed by the American-Statesman, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for what in disputes pitting property owners against workers involved in utility installation. The situation falls into a complicated and sometimes murky area of the law, the legal experts say.
“As lawyers say, it depends,” said Judon Fambrough, senior lecturer for the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. “You nearly have to look at each instance separately and cannot generalize.”
Several lawyers agreed, however, that when a city grants a utility access to public easements, it comes with a responsibility to be safe and address any damage caused by the work. For example, Google Fiber has a license agreement with the city that establishes minimum standards of conduct with homeowners.
“What we are talking about is: Pay attention,” said Tom Carse, a Dallas-based attorney who represents homeowners in such cases. And “be careful to adhere to industry practices and you will not have a problem.”
‘An orange nightmare’
Today, Lambs Lane is a busy series of construction scenes, filled with the constant pounding of hammers and sounds of drills as waves of contractor crews work their way through homes damaged in the Oct. 30 floods.
More than a dozen residents along the street have filed city permits that call for a combined $760,000 in remodeling and repair work in connection with the floods.
And that’s in addition to monthslong, ongoing work to install Google Fiber infrastructure along the street, which today is marked by a series of orange nets surrounding public easement areas.
“It’s turned into an orange nightmare,” said resident Rose Olmeda, referring to the orange net in her front yard. “I’m so upset about this. Every day they are going up and down the street. There has to be something we can do. I’m totally fed up.”
And Olmeda is one of the lucky ones: Her home didn’t flood during the Oct. 30 storm.
The Cruzes and several other residents of the Nuckols Crossing neighborhood claim MasTec, Google Fiber's contractor, left behind materials that blocked storm drains on their street, which led to flooding when a record 12 inches of rain fell on their properties that day. Several residents say they were put in hotels by MasTec's insurer for weeks as crews worked to repair water damage in the homes.
At least six residents, who declined to give their names for fear of being sued after signing a legal agreement, said they reached financial settlements with MasTec’s insurer to reimburse them for damage to their vehicles, belongings and homes. At least three residents said they received $70,000 or more in their settlement deals.
But the Cruzes weren’t as fortunate. They claim they had more than $100,000 in damage to their home and belongings and that both of their personal vehicles were ruined and equipment for their lawn care business was damaged.
The couple is still embroiled in a battle with MasTec’s insurer to receive compensation. They say they have emptied out their savings accounts, maxed out credit cards and lost weeks of work to repair their home.
“All we want is to see our home finished,” said Dolores Cruz, 45. “It wasn’t damage that was brought about by Mother Nature. They caused it, and they need to make themselves responsible.”
‘Who is accountable?’
While Austin neighborhoods clamored to be included in the earliest part of Google Fiber’s installation plans, complaints began to bubble up shortly after the construction phase started.
Of the 254 Google Fiber-related complaints filed last year, only two were filed in February. The number grew last summer and fall, with 185 of those coming from July through December.
Some residents say trying to track down who is responsible for what can be half the battle.
Angela Baker, president of the Battle Bend Springs Neighborhood Homeowners Association in South Austin, says her neighborhood also has been plagued with issues tied to fiber installation projects. She said she is unsure which service provider is behind the installation projects in her area.
“Who is accountable for all the troubles they’ve caused, regardless of who they work for?” Baker said. “Numerous contractors have come through here, and we don’t know who works for what. It’s been really frustrating.”
Anita Sybesma was at her 96-year-old mother’s Travis Heights home in October when she noticed a stranger walking across her backyard.
She yelled at the man to stop, but when he kept going, Sybesma says she called 911.
“I said, ‘Get out of the yard! You cannot be in this yard!’” she said. “I got scared. My mom has been robbed twice. So I called the police.”
Sybesma said after police arrived, she learned the man was a MasTec worker trying to access a right of way area behind her mother’s backyard fence. She asked to be contacted if he needed to access the yard again but said that was just the beginning of what’s become a three-month saga to keep workers off her mother’s property.
Sybesma has since hired an attorney.
“For three months I have been promised things from Google Fiber, and none of them have been followed through,” Sybesma said. “I don’t even want to use Google to find anything anymore.”
City Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents District 9, which includes the Travis Heights area, wasn't familiar with Sybesma's case, but says she's had only a few constituent calls on Google Fiber and said the company "has been very responsive."
Looking for a solution
Kyle Walker, a 25-year-old state worker who lives in the Springfield neighborhood in Southeast Austin, says he’s running out of patience to resolve his issues.
Walker says he’s been in a monthslong fight to address being “surrounded by holes” at and around his Running Water Drive home since Thanksgiving weekend.
“Our street has been experiencing a laundry list of issues,” says Walker. “They have slung dirt all over our driveways, streets and sidewalks and not returned to clean up their messes unless prompted to do so by residents. They have used people’s yards as storage grounds … (that go) well beyond the city’s right of way line.”
When Google Fiber began work on a nearby street, workers completed their tasks there within a week, he said. However, it seems construction along Running Water Drive has “no end in sight,” Walker said.
Walker said he knew that Google Fiber was working in the area thanks to news reports, and he also received an initial notice of work. However, he said he had no idea that it would mean tearing up parts of his yard and others.
“Last week we drove home and there was just a giant pile of dirt in our yard,” he said. “I would have rather had Google Fiber and MasTec to have a community meeting to just talk to residents on what the installation of these lines would entail.”
Walker said he still doesn’t know which subcontractor is working on his street. Walker called the Google Fiber construction hotline and reached out to his City Council representative and to other city offices, but to no avail.
“I still don’t know who was doing the actual physical work,” he says. “They still won’t tell me. I felt like I was being stonewalled. And the city response was not very satisfying.”
City Council Member Delia Garza, who represents District 2, which includes the Southeast Austin streets of Lambs Lane and Running Water Drive, couldn't be reached for comment last week.
Hoping for a new beginning
Last month, the Cruzes reached out to MasTec’s insurer in hopes of reaching some kind of resolution. They are still waiting.
Other families have made better progress getting compensation but haven’t been able to move back home yet as contractors work through a backlog of repairs.
“The difference is some have money but no house,” Arnulfo Cruz said. “I don’t have money, but I have my house.”
The Lambs Lane case is a complicated one. The street isn't in a flood plain, isn't part of a nearby Onion Creek buyout program for flood-prone homes and wasn't impacted by any flooding from any nearby creeks connected to the Oct. 30 storms, says Kevin Shunk, flood plain administrator for the city of Austin's Watershed Protection Department.
But Shunk also points out that the street received 12 inches of rain that day, which he said could have caused flooding even without blocked storm drains.
To repair their home, Arnulfo and Dolores Cruz say they worked 12- to 14-hour days to install new insulation, drywall, doors, cabinets and appliances throughout the home. By January, they were able to move back in.
They still don’t have much furniture aside from a beloved dining room table and chair set from their native Mexico they salvaged from the floods. They purchased used mattresses, and most of their belongings remain in plastic bins.
“You know who helped us? Home Depot,” Cruz said. “They saw a lot of activity on our card, asked us if we were OK and extended our credit.”
The couple’s two vehicles, a 2003 GMC Yukon and a 1996 Ford F-250 pickup, still run, but both have salvage titles now. The Yukon, Arnulfo Cruz says, will die soon.
Dolores Cruz says she made the mistake in the early weeks of turning away help from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, thinking a resolution would come through MasTec's insurer. Now, she doesn't know what will happen.
“Someone has to hear us,” she said. “Someone has to hear us.”
To dig or not to dig?
Whenever possible, Google Fiber runs its high-speed network by attaching to available utility poles to avoid digging and redundant construction. Doing so minimizes the impact of Google Fiber’s construction on the city’s right of way areas and traffic congestion, city officials and Google Fiber say. The city and its entities own at least 80 percent of the area’s utility poles, while Dallas-based telecom giant AT&T owns the remainder. Google Fiber has an agreement with Austin Energy to access its poles and in Dec. 2013 reached a private deal that gave the Internet giant access to AT&T’s utility poles as well.
— Claudia Grisales
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