Chris Miksanek: An exercise in utility
Chris Miksanek

©2007 Chris Miksanek





It was published in the October 19, 2007 Rochester Post Bulletin.


Chris Miksanek: An exercise in utility




An exercise in utility
By Chris Miksanek

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

    They rise from subdivision landscapes like a Stonehenge, meticulously attended-to by the druid high priests of the cul-de-sac.
    OK, “high-priest” may be a bit of an exaggeration; “health care professional with a pair of pruning shears” might be more accurate. And while they may perplex a passing field mouse, to the rest of us they’re just an eyesore; a blight on our otherwise attractive yards that is the price we pay for HBO and a dial tone.
    And they’re the bane of the weekend squire.
    They are public utility boxes. The ubiquitous electric, cable TV, and telephone service points planted in our yards, squatters on our property that do for a well-manicured lawn what acne does for a porcelain-smooth cheek.
    But give ’em this: they’re a lot easier on the eyes than telephone poles.
    Which, up until 1965, was the alternative.
    Though underground wiring had occasionally been used before, the Federal Housing Administration began requiring it in new residential subdivision platting as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “America the Beautiful” campaign. The FHA, as well as many home builders, first baulked at the additional $160 cost of burying the wires (the equivalent of $1000 today), but after some lobbying from a Washington state utility, they were convinced that beautification increased the value of the average plot and was more than justified.
    Coldwell Banker Burnet’s Mark Paukert agrees that an attractive, well-landscaped property will assess higher but suggests that the better motive is fundamental curb appeal. “Because you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” the veteran Realtor says, “homeowners should invest in some inexpensive but effective cover to help soften the harshness of the boxes.”
    That’s something Kevin Kleist already knew. He found his service boxes unattractive even before he began construction on his home in Southeast Rochester. “Those behemoths sticking out of the ground were the weak point of my landscaping,” he said. But Kleist wasn’t about to let a few khaki (or maybe he said “tacky”) metal boxes undermine the ten-thousand dollars that he had invested in his yard. He estimates that he spent an additional $250 -- keeping it reasonable, he says, just in case the utilities mussed his handiwork -- to make the utility box area “look like part of the landscaping.”
    And it is, in fact, that very sentiment that is shared by every homeowner cum turf cosmetologist who, beginning with a foundation of pea-gravel, applies a generous layer of rhododendron and perennial concealer with just a hint of Cyprus mulch rouge to cleverly hide their property’s imperfections.
    Because, after all, we’re not celebrating a cute anomaly like Cindy Crawford’s mole here. We’re talking about a crooked Qwest box sticking out of your lawn.
    And that’s going to require a lot more creativity than a garden gnome, so I hope you saved the receipt.


Know before you how
Using a pitchfork near underground cables is never a good idea but, remarkably, there are very few other guidelines.

You can’t paint the boxes or change the grading of the land the boxes occupy. They are the property of utilities who have an “easement,” the legal equivalent of:

“Get off my property!”
“N’aaa, I don’t have to. The Planning and Public Works department said I could be here.”


Go ahead and knock yourself out with the magnolias, but don’t be surprised if your beautification is disturbed in the rare event a technician needs to access the units. (None of the reps at Qwest, Charter Cable, or RPU could recall of any specific instances in which customers complained that technicians weren’t respectful of their landscaping.)


Exercise a little common sense (read any warning stickers on the boxes and don’t hide them so well that the service guys can’t find them) and show some common decency (no cacti or poison oak where the fellas have to work).

A humble paean to the god of HDTV or an optimistic gardener?


All material presented here is Copyright 2007 Chris Miksanek
Last updated: October 19, 2007