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Digging in Your Own Backyard? You May Be Trespassing

If you’ve ever been snorkeling in Hawaii or Jamaica, you know there is a whole other world beneath the surface of the sea, beautiful and majestic. Now use your imagination and go snorkeling in your own backyard. There’s a world that’s not quite so pretty.

Gas pipes, TV cables, waterways, sewer lines, phone lines, electric wiring--the world beneath us in Orange County is a maze of lines that belong to other people.

“When you’re looking at the title document for your new house, all you’re thinking about is, ‘How am I going to pay for this sucker?’ ” said Ron Olitsky, who cares about all those lines. “Nobody ever reads the fine print that says a whole lot of people have easement rights to that property.”

Olitsky is president of a nonprofit group called Underground Service Alert (USA). Maybe you didn’t know--I certainly didn’t--but you’re required by state law to call USA any time you want to do any digging in your backyard, even if it’s just to bury your deceased cat.

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USA then contacts any of its member agencies that might have lines in your area.

“You start digging without knowing what’s there, you can knock out your cable TV or your phone line,” Olitsky said. “But even worse in some cases, like digging into a gas line, you can wind up getting hurt.” Even a small nick in a gas line can lead to later problems, he said.

The 21-year-old Underground Service Alert is headquartered in Brea but covers a nine-county area. Some days it logs more than 2,500 calls, but Olitsky says that’s not nearly enough. He estimates there must be four times that many “dig-ins,” as it’s known in his business, taking place daily in those nine counties.

USA recently began promoting itself a little bit more because new surveys show that about half the digging is on private property. And in most cases, you can bet there is some kind of line underneath. Olitsky puts several thousand miles on his vehicle each month as he pushes public awareness about dangerous digging.

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Most private property dig-ins are for backyard pools or spas. But USA gets all kinds of calls. In Bel Air, he said, some of the security-conscious rich have been digging escape tunnels.

You don’t have to dig deep to run into trouble. Some piping or line buried several feet deep 25 years ago may be just a few inches deep in places where the earth has shifted over the years. Accidents are rare, Olitsky said, but possible if you don’t know where the lines are.

“In Beverly Hills, you can come across an underground line every time you sneeze,” Olitsky said.

Here’s how his operation works: You must call USA two days before any digging. USA will then check the Thomas Guide map page and grid number for your location. It will then contact any of its 800 or so clients with something underground who have asked to be notified for that specific grid number.

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In Orange County, he said, usually a dozen clients will be listed on most grids. Those who have anything underground on your property will come out and mark off the area so you’ll know where it’s safe to dig. The others will call to give you an “all clear.”

Most of the clients, as you might expect, are utility or cable companies. But USA’s client list throughout Southern California includes places like the Walt Disney Corp. (with underground communications equipment between its sites), many colleges, even a prison or two.

“The trend is now to put everything underground to cut down on having unsightly poles everywhere, especially in new subdivisions,” Olitsky said. “We’re just trying to convince people that a phone call to us can save them a lot of trouble later.”

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Ballroom Remembrance: A reader called to gently chide me that in Saturday’s column I was about 40 years too early on my date for the closing of the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach. I should clarify:

The first Rendezvous faced Balboa Boulevard and was destroyed by fire in 1927. The caller was actually referring to the second Rendezvous Ballroom. This one, much larger than the first, was in the same block, but faced the ocean near the Balboa Pier.

A set of condominiums now exists on the site for the second one, which had been built in 1928. But there is a plaque on the southwest corner, noting that the ballroom was a showcase for the big band era (though some of you may remember the Rendezvous in its later years as the home of early rocker Dick Dale). The plaque reads in part: “The music and dancing have ended, but the memories linger on.”

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Post Oscar Party: Remember the short but eloquent speech given by Chuck Jones of Newport Beach when he received his special Oscar at the Academy Awards last year? Jones, now 85, created Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner and a few other memorable characters.

So what do you do for an encore after an Oscar? On Dec. 18, Christie’s in New York will hold a special auction of animated art from Jones’ personal collection--with some pieces dating to the 1940s that will sell for $10,000 or more.

The auction house’s description of Jones in its announcement: “One of the few serious rivals to Disney.”

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Wrap-Up: Before you dig, that number to call for Underground Service Alert is (800) 227-2600. You can also call that number if you’ve already started digging anyway and you’ve run into a problem that needs clearing up.

But Olitsky stresses there is another phone number you should call for a really serious problem, such as striking a pipe and then smelling gas. That number is 9-1-1.

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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