A town hall meeting held at the South County Community Center and broadcast on Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack's Facebook page provided a forum for county officials and Tachus to talk about the construction project that Tachus officials said will provide The Woodlands area with fiberoptic broadband internet.
According to its website, the company is working on installation in the villages of Cochran's Crossing and Panther Creek.
Carter Old, Tachus president and chief financial officer, said the company is spending $45 million to install fiberoptic internet in The Woodlands, where the company is also located. In the company's first two years, it has passed about 20,000 homes, including 15,000 in Lake Conroe area as well as homes the eastern part of Montgomery County in Oakhurst, Old said.
However, the construction process has resulted in complaints from residents about a lack of notice for construction work in their front yards as well as damage to water, gas and sewer lines and personal property damage to sprinkler systems and lawns. County officials said damage has included several major water line breaks over the past year, but there are few options available to government to restrict a utility company operating within the law.
“We have gone through just about every available tool in our arsenal,” Noack said. “A county and a city’s arsenal when it comes to dealing with a telecommunications provider is very small.”
Noack said the state Legislature has given telecommunications providers unrestricted access in rights of way in some utility easements.
“They can go in there and put their line when they want, where they want and how they want; there’s no regulatory authority that’s really on top of them,” he said.
County Attorney B.D. Griffin said under state law, telecommunications companies are not required to notify or gain county approval for work within the right of way with the caveat "not to inconvenience the public."
Noack said the county and The Woodlands Township have had conversations with Tachus to try to work out a solution that allows the company to deliver services while maintaining communication.
“Know at the end of the day I’m on your side ... but we’ve got to find a way in which we can get this in the ground in a more efficient manner and where everyone can be happy,” he said.
Several residents who spoke at the meeting or in comments on the Facebook livestream cited frustration that they were not notified of the construction work on their property or that the subcontractors had left trash behind. Although the company said door hangers are placed at residences, some residents who spoke or commented at the meeting said they had not received them.
Among the ideas suggested were posting a notice at community entrances visible from the roadway or maintaining a running list of in-progress projects on the company website.
Tachus officials said they were willing to work with the community and government in continuing to improve communications. Construction manager James Turner said every construction crew has a supervisor on-site who can respond to concerns from residents if they occur. The company conducts an investigation whenever an underground service line is damaged, Turner said.
“We are not a company that says ‘Not our problem,’ cross our arms, and we’re going to go tear everything up,” Tachus CEO Hal Brumfield said.
However, he acknowledged damage does sometimes occur as a result of construction, both to utility lines and other types of underground structures.
“Unfortunately when you do underground construction ... they may hit your sprinkler lines. We force our contractors to repair those. We don’t have to, but again, it’s not the right thing to do.”
Brumfield said at the close of the meeting the company requires contractors to fix issues such as broken sprinkler systems within 48 hours but that residents must contact them to notify them of issues.
Jim Stinson, general manager of The Woodlands Water Agency, spoke from the audience at the meeting on the frequency of broken water lines within The Woodlands area.
"There are some big challenges to overcome. ... The number of breaks we're experiencing with the current construction program far exceeds what we typically see," Stinson said.
Noack said information about where to report issues to Tachus will be publicly posted by the end of the week.