A FIGHT OVER LIGHTS Streetlight debate splits Uniontown NORTHWEST -- Taneytown * Union Bridge * New Windsor * Uniontown


Uniontown is more like Splitsville these days.

The town's residents are upset at the possibility of being left in the dark. Literally.

Three years ago Potomac Edison Co. gave the Uniontown Improvement Association a choice: replace the 50-year-old incandescent street lamps with high-pressure sodium lights or go without lights altogether after Dec. 31, 1992. The association handles civic issues in the unincorporated town.

"Everything was fine. We loved the old lights, and we turned on porch lights for any extra light we needed," said resident Tom Romoser, chairman of the town's lighting committee.

"But then the power company came in and changed everything for us," Mr. Romoser said, "and that's when all the trouble started."

Although the power company extended the deadline to July 1993, the town continues to work as diligently to solve the problem as it had in the beginning.

The current lamps -- which look like bowed sunflowers -- sit atop Potomac Edison's power poles along the quaint stretch of Uniontown Road.

The new lights, Mr. Romoser said, are about four times as bright as the old ones, look like mall parking lot lights, and would double the $15-a-year "dues" that most homeowners currently pay for the town's street lighting.

He said not all residents currently pay for the lights, although they are expected to do so.

"Under the new system," Mr. Romoser said, "the town would be contractually obligated to pay for the [lighting] system, and everybody would have to pull their weight."

And few residents think the new lights fit into the town's quaint atmosphere.

The lighting committee conducted a vote to see how residents felt about the issue and the results were discussed last Tuesday at a town meeting. Of the 70 property owners who received ballots, 37 voted against the new lights, and 33 voted for them.

The vote has nearly destroyed the town's unity.

"I've lived here all my life except for a few years when I worked in Baltimore, before we had light," said Miriam West, a retired Carroll teacher and lifelong Uniontown resident who declined to give her age but described herself as "one of the older residents."

"When we got lights, we were very happy about it," she said. "It is just not feasible to be a town without lights."

Dorothy Fritz, a lifelong resident, agreed. She said safety is a factor to consider.

"I cannot see why people here would not want plenty of light," Mrs. Fritz said. "They don't think vandalism can come to %J Uniontown, but in this day and age you have to look out for those things."

Randy and Anthony Swetz want homeowners to purchase their own streetlights and pay for their use along with other household electricity.

"I don't think the added expense would be more than $20 a year after they were installed, and we pay $15 yearly to the improvement association anyway," said Mrs. Swetz. "I want lights, but I definitely don't want those neon things, or whatever it is they offered to put up."

Mr. Romoser said some people say that the new lights are so bright they will interfere with their sleep. But Mrs. Fritz said that that's a problem easily solved.

"I can't see that these lights are much brighter than the old ones," she said. "If people think they are so bright and shining into their windows, let them put up window shades."

Lee Warren, a commercial service representative for the power company, said Potomac Edison is phasing out incandescent street lighting throughout its service area because the lamps are obsolete and it is no longer feasible for the company to maintain them.

"The most efficient light source today is the high-pressure sodium lights we want to install," Mr. Warren said. "We have given them [the residents] three years, and it seems the closer you get to the deadline the more people get involved in things."

Mr. Romoser counters: "We found a place that had parts for the lights and we suggested servicing the lamps ourselves, if only the company would supply the power. But the company said we couldn't do that for liability reasons, which I understand.

"While they [Potomac Edison] have been polite and nice, they have been very uncooperative."

Mr. Romoser said the committee also has solicited help from agencies that deal with historical places in the county because the new lights constitute a change in the appearance of the community. But, he said, "No one has been able to help us."

Jim Smith, a Uniontown resident who chairs the Carroll County Historic District Commission, said he thought the power company was exempt from any of the commission's decisions because it is a utility and its existence predated the commission.

But Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson, the county attorney, says Potomac Edison must comply with commission standards under the county's zoning code that cover changing the exterior of a historic area. Uniontown is the only area in the county listed in the zoning code as a historic district.

"I like everyone here, but I don't like this division between us," Mrs. Fritz said. "It's always been a real community here. We've got to pull together, like we always have."

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