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Thursday, December 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Chain saws can't cut red tape

Seattle Times staff columnist

When a cedar tree with a trunk 3 feet thick fell across Seattle's 33rd Avenue, the folks there saw it as a symbol of the ruthless force of nature.

For a couple of days, anyway. Since then, the downed tree has come to signify a different power. One that's sluggish, vague, maddening. "It's been a quagmire," says David Maritz, owner of the roughly 50-year-old tree.

He's talking about government red tape.

At 1 a.m. Friday, the tree toppled, dragging down power and phone lines. That day, city crews cut the electrical lines from the poles, to ensure that no live wires were in the street.

And then the tree lay there. It bent phone and cable wires precariously, tilting nearby power poles. It lay there long enough that kids decorated it with tinsel, and neighbors began hassling Maritz to get rid of it so the power could be fixed.

After waiting until Monday, he tried. That's when bureaucracy broke out.

Maritz hired Norwest Tree Experts. He met a City Light crew to assess the situation. They told him, he says, that the lines were dead. But they were noncommittal about whether he should wait for the city's tree contractor to do the work.

"They said: 'We won't say you can cut the tree, but we also won't say that you can't,' " says Vic Bell, of Norwest.

After pondering that Delphic pronouncement, Bell and Maritz chose to clear the tree. During the cutting, City Light crews visited three times, and none told Bell to stop.

Then a state inspector showed up. He shut Bell down and said he would likely fine him for working within 10 feet of hazardous power lines.

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"It doesn't matter whether City Light is there, saying the lines are dead," said Scott Reiquam, inspector for the Department of Labor and Industries. "By the code, you have to be qualified to work around power lines. And they weren't."

Bell said Reiquam told him the fine could be up to $7,000.

Meanwhile, neighbors were heading into their fifth day without heat or lights. They started to revolt.

"There have been crews out here at least six times, and no one did anything," said neighbor Hoyt Scott at midday Tuesday. "Now the one guy who actually did some work is getting fined?"

Next up: civil disobedience. Someone's brother-in-law showed up with a chain saw. Nobody from the city or state was there citing code, so he cut the limbs trapping the wires.

Its poles freed, City Light on Wednesday restored the power. The tree still lies across the sidewalk and partway into the street. Maritz isn't sure when he'll clear the rest of it.

"I'm a bit shell-shocked," he says. "I tried to help, and instead I'm out a bunch of money. Plus the fine. It makes you wonder if it's better to just ride it out and do nothing."

The point of this story isn't that government is evil. Or that its response to this storm has been unusually dysfunctional.

No, this is the nature of bureaucracy. Sometimes it's there to help you. Sometimes it gets in your way.

Next disaster isn't likely to be different. The point is, as they'll tell you out on 33rd Avenue: You're pretty much going to be on your own.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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