Decision on OpenBand franchise in Loudoun pushed to September

The question of whether Loudoun County will renew a controversial franchise agreement with telecommunications provider OpenBand will not be answered until September, after a vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night to extend the transition period outlined in OpenBand’s previous contract by 90 days.

The proposed agreement, which was rejected in November by the previous Board of Supervisors, was submitted again to the newly elected board this year.

More than a dozen residents of communities served by OpenBand addressed the board, highlighting unresolved issues — including concerns over exclusive property easements, poor service and difficult negotiations — that have marked the ongoing conflict.

OpenBand has continued to provide cable TV, phone and Internet service to several eastern Loudoun communities since its previous franchise agreement expired in June 2009, but the transition period was set to end June 17. By extending the period by 90 days, county supervisors said, they hope both sides will have more time for a final resolution.

Residents of several subdivisions served by OpenBand, including Southern Walk at Broadlands, Lansdowne on the Potomac and Lansdowne Village Green, have long complained about the company’s service. They also claim that exclusive property easements in agreements between OpenBand and the communities’ developers amount to an illegal monopoly that makes it impossible for customers to seek other service providers.

Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who has attempted to help mediate discussions between OpenBand and two homeowners associations in his district for several months, said he hopes the unanswered questions and pending lawsuits might be resolved soon.

“I think there’s still a lot of balls up in the air,” he said. “There’s lots of litigation, and some of that litigation could be settled during this time period.”

Two homeowners associations, Southern Walk at Broadlands and Lansdowne on the Potomac, filed federal lawsuits against OpenBand last year. The Southern Walk lawsuit was dismissed in July, and the association soon filed an amended complaint. The amended lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in February, meaning that the association cannot file the complaint again. An appeal of that decision is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

The lawsuit filed against OpenBand by the Lansdowne on the Potomac HOA remains pending, as is a complaint filed by OpenBand against the Board of Supervisors after the previous board voted to deny the franchise renewal. That lawsuit has not been served on the county.

Before the public input heard Tuesday night, OpenBand spokesman Ben Young addressed the board, urging supervisors to approve the franchise renewal without delay and saying the claims against the company are unsubstantiated.

“Running a cable company or a video cable service company is a bit like politics. As you know well, it doesn’t matter how credible you are, or how conscientious you are, someone is going to be unhappy with you,” he said. “For several years, certain individuals have repeatedly asserted that OpenBand’s business model and contractual agreements are illegal. . . . A federal judge has ruled. OpenBand is not a monopoly. We believe this issue is settled.”

Young also said the company had gone to great efforts to work with the affected communities to compromise on the franchise, an assertion disputed by several homeowners association leaders who also addressed the board.

Tom Jeavons, president of the Lansdowne Village Green HOA, said his association participated in only one face-to-face meeting with OpenBand, on April 23.

Since then, Jeavons said, “we’ve requested additional face-to-face meetings three times. We’ve forwarded two written proposals.”

In seven weeks, he said, there were only two returned phone calls from Young.

“We feel a bit like a dog chasing its own tail,” Jeavons said.

Jeff Chapman, president of the Lansdowne on the Potomac HOA, echoed Jeavons’ sentiments.

“Our community of 2,200 is very concerned,” he said. Although the Lansdowne HOA appreciated the opportunity to sit down twice with OpenBand representatives, he added, “it was more of a forum for OpenBand to offer their view in person . . . than it was a negotiation.”

Doug Granzow, vice president of the Southern Walk HOA, told the supervisors that he had been threatened by an OpenBand representative, whom he later identified as OpenBand attorney David Catania, during a negotiation meeting last week.

“The subject of pricing came up, and when I challenged them on their claim that they are the lowest-priced provider in the county, the OpenBand representative snapped at me,” he said. “He said, and I quote, ‘It’s comments like that about our pricing that make me want to jump over this table and stab you with a sharp object.’ ”

Granzow said he was shocked by Catania’s statement.

“I have never had someone say something like that to me in any kind of business discussion, ever,” he said. “This seems to be their standard operating procedure. Dominate, intimidate, threaten.”

In an e-mail Friday, Young responded to Granzow’s claim by noting that Granzow “left out the part where [Catania] told him he was joking.”

Granzow, Young said, “wasn’t too offended to sit through the rest of a free lunch.”

Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) cast the lone vote in opposition to the 90 -day extension, saying the board needs to make a decision and should not allow the pending lawsuits to stand in its way.

“We’re not a courthouse here. We’re not judges; we’re elected officials,” he said. “We have to make a political decision about a very hot topic.”

Several supervisors said they would vote for the extension as a show of support for Buona and Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run), who represent the affected communities and encouraged additional time to resolve the matter.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) — who noted that he has never received campaign contributions from OpenBand or its parent company, M.C. Dean — urged both the homeowners associations and OpenBand to “get serious” about finding a solution.

Once the extension is up, Higgins said, “the talking is over at that point, for sure.”

The Board of Supervisors is expected to address the franchise agreement at a September meeting, after its August recess.

Buona said he hoped there would be progress in the interim.

“This is a complex issue.
. . . There’s lots and lots of moving parts,” he said. “I don’t think OpenBand wants to be litigating with their customers, and I know the HOAs don’t want to be spending all this money on litigation.

“Let’s make another run at it, and if we can get there, that’s fantastic.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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