Red Bank has decided to renew its fight against New Jersey Natural Gas after Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson recently sided with the utility over whether or not it should be allowed to install above ground gas regulators throughout the borough’s downtown.
Following a brief executive session during its meeting Wednesday night, Red Bank Council voted to take the issue to an appellate court, challenging Lawson’s determination that Red Bank doesn’t have jurisdiction over the matter and that locating gas regulators above ground, instead of keeping them under the borough’s sidewalks, is inherently beneficial.
In February, Red Bank denied the utility permits in its effort to replace 88 underground gas regulators with above ground regulators. NJNG claimed its reasoning for the move was based on inspection reports that showed below ground regulators were prone to water damage. Red Bank officials objected to the move based on a number of factors, including that above ground regulators are unsightly and undermine the carefully cultivated aesthetic of the downtown and that they present a safety hazard to pedestrians.
Soon after having its work permits denied, NJNG sued on the grounds that the borough’s motivations were arbitrary and capricious and that it was in violation of federal law that requires utilities ensure the safety and reliability of their system.
Red Bank Mayor Pat Menna scoffed at the notion that NJNG is concerned with safety saying the underground regulators, installed in Red Bank decades ago, have never caused a building to be evacuated. Above ground regulators, however, of which Red Bank already has a few, have been struck by vehicles, causing gas leaks and creating dangerous situations.
Lawson did not share the mayor’s opinion, apparently. Lawson said necessary approvals for efforts like these come from the state’s Board of Public Utilities and that Red Bank, despite being the town impacted by the change, has no authority to deny work permits.
“They’re saying they can do whatever they want to do and the municipality be damned,” Red Bank Solicitor Daniel O’Hern said Wednesday night following the council meeting.
NJNG has replaced underground regulators with above ground regulators in a couple of towns, though the Red Bank transition to above ground regulators would be the largest to date. The suggestion that above ground regulators would be beneficial in any way to a municipality demonstrates “medieval” thinking, Menna said. Menna also speculated that the move is being done simply because it allows NJNG to more easily read meters.
On Wednesday afternoon, an email was circulated between downtown business owners urging the council to continue fighting NJNG. George Lyristis, a co-owner of several restaurants, including Teak and The Bistro at Red Bank, said above ground regulators have been hit and have caused forced his restaurants to be evacuated on two occasions. That kind of loss isn’t justifiable, he claims.
The above ground regulators are between two and three feet tall, and are comprised pipe and unpolished metal. The few that are already downtown have rusted joints and questionable wires sticking out of them.
A refrain from council was that NJNG has not made an effort to communicate with the borough and its construction officials. The utility said the regulator replacement was being done for safety reasons, but when officials asked for data and a meeting, they were rebuffed. O’Hern said he and members of the council have asked for a meeting to simply find out why Red Bank’s downtown needs above ground regulators. NJNG has not consented.
“We’re entitled to answers,” Menna, who called NJNG an evil monopoly, said. “And they won’t give them to us.”