By John Burton
RED BANK – “The battle of the sidewalks continues,” Mayor Pasquale Menna said about the ongoing legal tussle between borough officials and a local state senator and New Jersey Natural Gas.
The battle is over the installation of gas regulators on borough sidewalks and has been in progress for many months. The latest salvo came when the gas company began installing equipment Oct. 12 without securing borough construction permits. Menna had police shut the project down.
Superior Court Assignment Judge Lawrence M. Lawson, sitting in Freehold, ruled on Sept. 24 in favor of permitting the gas company to replace about 88 below-grade gas regulators through much of the borough’s downtown commercial district with above ground units. The ruling was made over the objections of Menna, the borough council, state Senator Jennifer Beck and Red Bank RiverCenter, the business alliance for the downtown.
With the judge’s decision in hand, the gas company began installing the new equipment without local permits and as the borough attorney was preparing to appeal Lawson’s ruling and seek a stay pending the appeal’s outcome.
What vexed Menna and others was the gas company’s move to conduct the work without obtaining a borough permit, which the mayor and Borough Attorney Daniel J. O’Hern Jr. said is required under a local ordinance. The permits are needed, local officials said, because gas company workers have to block and tear up sidewalks.
“They didn’t even apply for the permits, they just said we’re going to do it, we’ll get it later,” a clearly irritated Menna said.
Michael Kinney, a New Jersey Natural Gas spokesman, responding to Menna’s assertion, “We believe the judge’s opinion speaks for itself and the court granted our application in its entirety, which gives the right to continue the work.”
The issue for the gas company, Kinney has said all along, is one of safety, as the old equipment, located below sidewalks in grate-covered pits, had aged and become corroded, which could lead to gas leaks or worse.
“That’s why we find it important to do this work,” he said.
Beck and local officials don’t view the issue the same way. They have said the gas company has been resistant to discussing the matter and has failed to fully justify the need for this work.
For Menna, Beck and RiverCenter, the issues at hand are the gas company’s lack of transparency in negotiating with the town, the town’s objections over having the streets disrupted in its downtown shopping district and installing equipment – that Menna has called “ugly” – particularly after the business alliance and property owners have spent years and considerable funds working on the downtown.
The regulators are a hazard to pedestrians and could be subject to more vandalism than the below ground versions, officials contend.
“This is now more about New Jersey Natural Gas exercising power over this municipality than it is about doing the right thing,” Beck said on Oct. 12, as workers were in the process of installing the gas regulator outside her 32 Monmouth St. legislative office.
Beck introduced legislation in the spring that would require public utilities to be more forthright in explaining their logic for such steps and to cover the costs of repairs following the work.
Menna ordered police to shut down gas company worksites on Oct. 12, and authorized the borough attorney to pursue an appeal and stay pending the appeal’s outcome.
O’Hern said he was waiting for the judge to issue his written directive to move forward with the appeal.
The company told the workers to stop once police entered the equation. “We have no interest in placing our employees in a confrontational situation,” Kinney said. “The court is aware of the situation. We’re waiting for direction and abiding by the court’s direction.”
The workers have replaced about 20 regulators. The regulators stand about knee-high and are a collection of pipes and meters that, according to Kinney, channel high-pressure natural gas for use in these commercial structures.