By JOHN T. WARD
A legal and PR battle pitting Red Bank government and business interests against the region’s dominant natural gas distributor is about to move into a new arena.
Borough officials, having lost round one in court, voted Monday night to file an appeal that they hope will stop New Jersey Natural Gas from relocating gas regulator valves from sub-sidewalk boxes to storefronts downtown.
Meantime, the town has begun issuing summonses charging the utility with doing construction work without obtaining necessary permits.
The decision to appeal follows a September 24 ruling in state Superior Court in Freehold by Judge Lawrence Lawson in a lawsuit NJNG filed against the borough earlier this year.
Upholding NJNG’s arguments, Lawson ruled that the utility’s valves, which are used to vent excess gas in the event of a pressure surge, are part of its distribution system, and thus exempt from borough regulation.
The borough, which opposes the relocations on on aesthetic and safety grounds, maintains they are structures that require zoning review and approval, as well as building permits, said town Attorney Dan O’Hern.
Following a quick closed-door executive session of the council, Mayor Pasquale Menna said that Red Bank RiverCenter had already decided to appeal, and that the borough would also.
He repeatedly derided NJNG as a monopoly that was taking a “medieval” view of power in “unilaterally” imposing its desires over the concerns of the town and its businesses.
“We’re making a statement and taking a step to protect the business district and all the investments in it,” added Councilman Mike DePont. “Many millions of dollars have been invested in our businesses and streetscapes.”
Afterward, officials said that NJNG had resumed its campaign to relocate 88 valves from sidewalk pits to storefronts, and last week tore up brick sidewalks on East Front Street that had just been refurbished as part of a street widening construction project that is still underway.
In response, the town has begun issuing summonses for each worksite at which the relocations are taking place. None have permits, as required by law, officials said. About 15 summonses have been issued, Menna estimated.
Maloof told redbankgreen that the gas valve at Teak was once struck by a vehicle, and a building he owns in Little Silver also had one hit, both resulting in daylong business shutdowns.
At 16 Broad, Maloof said he saw NJNG workers out front last week taking measurements, but no relocation had yet occurred.
“I’ll stand in front of them if I have to,” he said. “Once they move it, they won’t ever put it back in the ground.”
Relocating the valve above-ground will also cost the restaurant an outdoor table, “so there’s a financial value to it also,” one that may affect other restaurants as well, he said.
Here’s the full text of Lawson’s opinion: Opinion NJNG v RB