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Regulations Endanger Christmas Tree Lane

Traditions: Sponsors of the Altadena spectacle are ordered to upgrade wiring to safety standards. Costs may be prohibitive.


Bureaucratic Grinches are threatening to darken Christmas Tree Lane, the mile-long avenue of deodar cedar trees in Altadena that have been festooned with holiday lights for almost 80 years, volunteers say.

Those volunteers, who decorate the trees and tend them during the holiday season, say they are racing to comply with new requirements that they replace some jury-rigged electrical connections, install new meters and get insurance in time for the traditional lighting, which is scheduled to begin Saturday.

But they said that even if they get the new electrical connections hooked up and the insurance arranged in time, this may be the last year the lane is lit.

That's because the county also is requiring that by next year they bring the whole system up to code, a project that would cost $500,000 to $1 million, far more than they can raise through donations.

"It's disgusting," said George Lewis, owner of a small automotive repair shop and former president of the Christmas Tree Lane Assn. "I blame the bureaucracy."

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is trying to iron out the situation, said he is willing to provide $10,000 from his discretionary funds, which would cover about half the cost of the insurance.

"We're doing everything we can to solve this problem," said Jennifer Plaisted, who works in Antonovich's office. "But this is a very severe safety problem. A house could burn or someone could get hurt. To ignore that would be neglectful."

The lane, which extends eight blocks along Santa Rosa Avenue between Woodbury Drive and Altadena Drive, attracts several hundred thousand visitors a year, Lewis said. Most of them arrive at night, driving slowly up the lane with their headlights out, enjoying the sparkling decorations on more than 125 trees.

Lewis said the lights and other decorations are strung through the trees by dozens of volunteers, many of whom have been doing it for years.

But county officials say that many of the electrical connections used to light the trees are neither weatherproof nor up to code.

"The whole system is dilapidated," said Vincent Haydel, a spokesman for the Southern California Edison Co.

The trees are on county property, and the Department of Public Works says the potential liability from an electrical fire is enormous.

Last September, Lewis said, the Edison Co.--which for years has helped with the project--said it could no longer provide free electricity and ordered the installation of electrical meters.

Lewis said his group had no problem with that, although it is having trouble getting the meters installed in time. Haydel said Edison is now willing to pay for this year's electricity if that will help.

But even with Antonovich's offer of financial help, that still leaves the association about $8,000 short on the insurance, not to mention the problems that loom for next year.

Donna Guyovich, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Public Works, said that because of the county's obligation to provide a safe environment, the lighting system on Christmas Tree Lane must be brought up to code.

Officials said that means existing junction boxes, now often hung from the trees and hooked up with extension cords, must be waterproofed and mounted on new poles--perhaps as many as one per tree.

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