TOWN FIRES BACK IN GAS EQUIPMENT SPAT

Gas utility crews have been working downtown this week to replace gas regulators in pits beneath sidewalks without moving them. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Escalating a dispute over who gets to determine where utility equipment can be installed, Red Bank officials threw another obstacle in the way of a New Jersey Natural Gas plan to relocate unsightly gas regulators from beneath downtown sidewalks to above-ground sites.

A pair of ordinance amendments adopted by the borough council Wednesday night would require the utility, and any other developer, to obtain planning or zoning board approval for any installation that “may impact” a sidewalk.

The changes, officials insisted, were aimed at squaring the language of existing ordinances, and do not create any new hurdles. But the move comes amid a pending lawsuit and other actions in a back-and-forth that pits the borough government and business interests against the gas company.

“It’s not a new obligation,” said borough Administrator Stanley Sickels. “It exists in other ordinances. It’s just a reconciling of ordinances.”

The gas company contends that most of 88 gas pressure regulators located in sidewalk pits outside downtown stores and restaurants have become corroded and unsafe, creating a danger of a natural gas leak, fire and explosion. Moving the valves above-ground an adjacent to storefronts makes them safer, the company maintains.

Borough officials, who initially objected to the plan on aesthetic grounds, contend the company has offered no proof that the valves are any better off above-ground, and claim they may be less safe.

“Federal regulations require NJNG to inspect them every three years,” said Nancy Adams, executive director of Red Bank RiverCenter, the downtown business-promotion agency. “We have no idea if the inspections have been done. They haven’t turned over any records.”

Earlier this week, the gas company launched a program to replace the regulators in their existing sidewalk pits without relocating them, citing the “potential threat of harm” if the changes were not made. Mayor Pasquale Menna called the campaign a publicity stunt.

Here are the amendments: Red Bank 2012-13, Red Bank 2012-14