Living off the grid might be free, but it's not easy

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Allegheny Power can use a guy wire to anchor a utility pole in a person's front yard if it has secured a right of way.

That's the law.

But debate rages between a Washington County man and the power company over that issue, with the power company winning each round to date in Magisterial District Court.

And even though he's repeatedly lost in criminal court, William Williams, 76, of Cecil, vows to continue removing the guy wire and its anchor in his yard each time the power company replaces them.

He served 26 days in jail this year for his wire-cutting actions, with more jail time expected in subsequent charges.

It's all part of Mr. Williams' campaign to declare himself free from all public utilities in a case of independent spirit vs. public utility, private rights vs. public service.

But the battle has escalated. Mr. Williams has dug a five-foot hole in his yard to remove the guy-wire anchor. And he knows the likely result: More charges, more jail time.

"I don't bother anyone. Why should they bother me?" he said.

But Allen Staggers, manager of corporate communications for Allegheny Power, said all power company facilities, including guy wires, were on rights of way the company has purchased. With old lines, the right-of-way agreement could have been reached decades ago.

"It's dangerous for people to tamper with our equipment, whether it is a live wire or a guy wire," he said. "[A utility pole] is big, it's heavy and you don't want to compromise the integrity of it. It can result in a power outage or someone getting hurt."

Mr. Williams uses no public utilities at his house on Reissing Road and vows never to use any. He's neither wired, plugged in, tapped in nor in the pipeline.

A self-proclaimed arch enemy of utility companies, he said, he stands determined to show the world how to stretch a dollar, reduce reliance on foreign oil and live the simple life. He also vows to fight for the right to refuse to use any public utilities.

So the man, who dons a trademark orange tassel cap, said he was proud to be off the grid, despite efforts by some utility companies to force him to tap into their lines.

His anti-utility philosophy has landed him in hot water.

He's faced charged three times for cutting the guy wire securing an Allegheny Power utility pole to his property. After each conviction, he's refused to pay restitution, court costs and fines on claims the company is encroaching on his property.

"I won't put up with it," he said. "I'm hard-headed."

Cost is the main reason he weaned himself from public utilities. He retired from Homestead Valve in 1974 and lives on his Social Security check and a $198-a-month pension.

But he said he preferred living without utilities because they are monopolies whose policies and prices threaten one's property rights and financial independence.

Rather than tap into a public waterline, he collects rainwater from his roof gutters in a holding tank. The water flows through a filter into a basement sink.

He uses a septic system, despite the fact Cecil has a public sewage system.

He's placed solar panels in the windows of his beige brick house to power a rechargeable battery for limited electricity.

For nine months, he refused to pay a service charge for electricity because, he said, he was using none. Finally, Allegheny Power removed the electrical lines.

Mr. Williams uses propane, kerosene and wood for what little heat he needs.

Owning neither a clothes washer nor dryer, he does his laundry in a bucket of filtered water and dries it on a backyard clothesline.

He recently gave away his unused refrigerator, preferring to store perishable food in his cool basement.

He never watches television but does listen to a battery-powered radio. Natural gas lines never were installed on his property.

And he has no telephone.

With no utility lines or pipes attached to his house, Mr. Williams is an island of independence in a world of interconnection.

"You have to learn to stretch dollars, and they will stretch," he said.

He cut the guy wire the first time because, he said, he kept tripping over it while collecting berries in his yard. Cecil police cited him for criminal mischief, intentionally damaging property, negligence and reckless endangerment.

But District Judge Valarie Costanzo, of Cecil, dismissed the charges after advising him not to repeat the misdeed.

The second time he cut the wire, he pleaded guilty to the charges and paid $400. He was sentenced to serve 19 days in the Washington County Jail, 17 of which he served after refusing to pay all costs, fines and restitution. Before that, he served seven days in jail for failing to respond to a court order in the case.

The most recent criminal case against Mr. Williams was transferred from Judge Costanzo's jurisdiction to that of District Judge Jay Weller in North Strabane, who found Mr. Williams guilty of the same four charges and assessed him $827 in fines, costs and restitution. Refusing to pay, Mr. Williams said he expected more jail time.

He contends Allegheny Power has no right to use his property to secure its pole because the guy wire and anchor are not within the company's right of way. He said the rights of way were not listed on his deed.

But Allegheny Power officials said the company owned the right of way, or it would not have installed the guy wire and anchor.

He could face even more problems if he doesn't tap into the public sewer system. Its officials could file a lien against his property if he doesn't connect.

For Mr. Williams, it's all a matter of civil disobedience. He said he refuses to surrender his property rights to the utilities.

"I don't owe [Allegheny Power] anything, and I'm not going to pay," he said. "They were on my property, and their right of way ends right here."

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
William Williams at his Reissing Road home in Cecil, where he is digging out the anchor that holds the guy wire from a nearby Allegheny Power utility pole. Mr. Williams uses no public utilities and has been jailed for cutting the guy wire.
Click photo for larger image.

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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