By John Burton
RED BANK – The borough scored a victory this week against New Jersey Natural Gas as a Superior Court judge blocked the gas company’s bid to get borough-opposed work permits to install aboveground equipment through much of downtown.
Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson, in Freehold, ruled Monday, June 18, against the gas company’s motion seeking injunctive relief against the borough for refusing to allow the utility to replace underground gas regulators with those that would be above ground, near sidewalks and buildings at approximately 80 locations on Broad, White and Monmouth streets, in the heart of the borough’s downtown business district.
Lawson found that “not enough has been demonstrated” to show that such an order should be issued to allow the utility to move forward with its plans to replace the equipment.
Local officials and Red Bank RiverCenter, which manages the borough’s business special improvement district, have opposed the plans.
“I think the decision is a very common sense one,” Mayor Pasquale Menna said after Lawson handed down his ruling.
Gas company officials, going back to March 2011, have said the gas regulators need to be replaced for the public and its employees’ safety. They have contended that the gas regulators currently in place are aging, and corroding from being below grade, which causes a higher risk of gas leaking. Aboveground regulators would make it easier for utility workers to work on or replace the equipment.
Regulators are devices that channel high-pressure natural gas, reducing the pressure so it could be more easily used for, in this case, commercial properties.
The regulators are now located below grade, in contained pits, covered with metal sheets.
The regulators stand about knee-high, and, according to the gas company spokesman, would be placed as close to the buildings as possible, on the sidewalk.
But installation would require workers to disrupt the area, tearing up sidewalks, and the regulators are aesthetically unappealing. The look of the equipment, local officials have said, is not an insignificant factor because the borough and business association have spent two decades and a considerable amount of money renovating and redeveloping its downtown area. The two groups also have argued there are safety considerations with having the equipment above ground, creating a potential hazard for pedestrians.
Borough officials and business people had alleged gas company representatives have not been willing to try and reach an amicable settlement and have refused to provide proof that the below ground equipment poses a real threat.
“We never thought they had to be put up in front of the building and that was the only solution,” said Nancy Adams, RiverCenter’s executive director.
State Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11), has gotten involved and introduced legislation that would require a public utility to take into consideration a municipality’s concerns and require the utility to return the site back to its original state.
“A community should have a seat at the table and be privy to the utility’s research when decisions like this are being made,” Beck said in a statement released Tuesday. “I’m sure as the case proceeds, the courts will continue to recognize the importance of utilities being transparent and maintaining an open dialogue with local officials.”
Mike Kinney, a spokesman for NJ Natural Gas, said Tuesday, “As we said from the beginning of all this, this is about safety and we will do all that we can to ensure the safety of our system and our customers.
“We are currently reviewing the judge’s opinion and weighing all of our options,” Kinney said.
One of those options would be to proceed with a full hearing before the judge, which, Red Bank Borough Attorney Daniel J. O’Hern Jr. said, “That’s what we asked for all along.”
Menna and Adams said they would be willing to continue discussions with the utility to find a solution.