Mayor Pat Menna has ordered Red Bank police to stop New Jersey Natural Gas crews from continuing to work without a permit immediately in their effort to replace 88 underground gas regulators throughout the borough's downtown with above ground ones.
NJNG Spokesman Michael Kinney said crews were approached by police Friday while in downtown Red Bank and told to stop work as they were replacing an underground regulator with an above ground one. While he said the utility believes it is acting within the law and is justified by a recent opinion written by Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson siding with the gas company, NJNG will wait for a court decision before proceeding.
"The police did ask us to stop working today and while we believe that the judge's opinion is clear we have respected that request and we have asked our employees to stop their work," Kinney said.
Red Bank has promised to fight the utility's efforts to replace the regulators, saying that not only do they clash with the aesthetics of the downtown, but that they pose safety risks to pedestrians and could lead to serious injury or death if they're struck by a vehicle that has hopped the curb.
Lawson said in his opinion that NJNG isn't beholden to local municipalities for work permits but rather the state's Board of Public Utilities.
The borough has appealed Lawson's decision.
NJNG crews have been replacing regulators throughout the downtown this week and have replaced about 20 of the 88 regulators already. On Front Street several below ground regulators have been replaced with the 2 to 3-foot tall unpolished metal above ground regulators. Early Friday morning, NJNG crews were tearing up sidewalks on Monmouth and Broad Street until Red Bank officials intervened.
Chief Stephen McCarthy said police haven't ordered NJNG to stop work, despite the claims of Menna and Kinney, though code enforcement officials have been issuing the utility summonses for working without a permit, he said. Summonses, however, weren't enough to deter NJNG until today.
The regulator fight has been ongoing since February when the borough first denied NJNG's construction permits.
The utility has claimed it needs to replace the below ground regulators with above ground ones because those under the sidewalk are prone to corrosion and thus dangerous leaks. The borough claims it was never presented with evidence that the underground regulators were dangerous. Officials say they were rebuffed when they asked NJNG to explain why the change was needed.
Red Bank RiverCenter Executive Director Nancy Adams said she believes NJNG is being a bully because of Red Bank's refusal to back down.
"The way this utility is acting is disgusting," she said. "They're doing this work without permits; they're doing it intentionally to be spiteful to Red Bank and the downtown district all because we said we don't think this is necessary."
Kinney said NJNG is simply doing the work it needs to do to ensure that the gas regulators in Red Bank are safe.
"As we have said from the beginning, this is a safety issue," he said. "Right now the next step is to let this go through the court system. We'll abide by their decision."