Anyone looking up during a stroll along Cherry Street is supposed to see nothing but buildings, signs, birds and sky.
All utility lines within a 20-block area of downtown, bounded by New, Walnut, Pine and Fourth streets are supposed to be buried, not strung overhead. Fourth Street is now named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The prohibition on overhead lines has been in effect for more than a century, but no one can remember the last time the city ordinance was enforced. Even so, the law is on track to remain on the books in the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government, which will take office in January.
The only reason that we were given to remove this from the code is that Georgia Power didnt particularly care for this type of regulation, Macon City Councilman Tom Ellington said.
But Brian Green, a spokesman for Georgia Power, said the issue is more complicated than simple compliance with a city law.
We are regulated by the Public Service Commission at the state level, he said. That supersedes local regulations, and current state law requires lines to be placed overhead, Green said.
Ellington said he doesnt expect any immediate push to put downtown utilities underground.
But if we didnt have that in (the law), its never going to happen, he said.
In fact, Ellington would like to see the no-overhead-lines zone extended outward, at least along the Second Street corridor that Mayor Robert Reichert wants to turn into a landscaped, pedestrian-friendly showpiece. On that street, it would be more than an aesthetic issue, Ellington said.
Theres a real conflict between street trees and overhead power lines, he said.
Reichert said he supports including the old city rule in the new governments ordinances, though when he takes office as mayor of the consolidated government he doesnt plan an enforcement push.
Its not a priority for me at this point, he said.
Through parts of downtown, Reichert said, overhead utilities run through alleys rather than along major streets, making them less of an issue.
When his Second Street corridor develops, he would like to see utilities placed underground along that streets length, well beyond the current 20-block area. But on a major portion of Second Street, lines already are underground or running through parallel alleys, Reichert said.
At this point, any effort at enforcement likely would be difficult and would take more than a standard enforcement action, acting Bibb County Engineer David Fortson said.
All I can say is that it has not been enforced for a very long time, and I dont think that at my level its something that we can enforce, he said. Its going to have to come from a higher level.
The long-ignored law first drew attention Oct. 9, when consultants from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government -- retained to help assemble basic ordinances for the new government from existing city and county codes -- brought it up before the Laws Committee of the task force working on consolidation. Betty Hudson, who works for the institute, had included it on the list of items proposed for deletion, noting that it was unenforced.
At first, Ellington was the only committee member to object to dropping the law.
It came back up at the Nov. 4 meeting of the Laws Committee, at which Ellington said he believed it hadnt been enforced because Georgia Power was not enthusiastic about assuming the task. But in hopes of future enforcement, he proposed keeping the language in the code being recommended to the new government for adoption. The committee agreed.
The current city code includes the ban on overhead lines, followed by a requirement that when wires are placed underground the work must be done in no more than 10 days and that any breaks in pavement must be properly relaid in good condition.
Research by Joyce Humphrey, Macon City Council clerk, found identical language in the 1947 edition of the code. And she discovered a very similar rule was on the books at least dating back to 1907.
The 106-year-old version specifies telephone or telegraph lines, but covers the same area. And a section of the code establishes a penalty: $25 per day for each violation.
Any overhead line in place that long within the designated area could draw a fine now approaching $100,000 -- if there was any way to enforce it.
Its not just about Georgia Power, Ellington said, because AT&T, Cox Communications and others have lines downtown, too. In some areas such as Cherry Street, many lines have been placed underground, he noted. But elsewhere within the district there are many overhead lines -- including across Poplar Street from Macon City Hall.
Green said that if Macon approached Georgia Power with a request to put downtown lines underground, that wouldnt be just the utilitys decision to make. The matter would have to be heard by the Public Service Commission as a request for a higher rate, since its substantially more expensive to put lines underground than string them overhead.
Green said local Georgia Power officials have a good working relationship with Macon and hope they can continue to collaborate under the new government.
Putting utility lines underground is no easy or inexpensive task, Fortson said.
Theres obviously a big cost involved with placing utilities underground, because theres so many unknown conditions you run into, he said.
Finding unexpected or forgotten things in an excavation isnt the only problem. Theres also the disruption to street and sidewalk traffic and the potential cost of working around other utilities in the same space, Fortson said.
All of that makes it difficult to accomplish, he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.