By JOHN T. WARD
The dispute over natural gas valves in downtown Red Bank grew more heated Friday morning, as Mayor Pasquale Menna directed the police chief to pull cops off traffic duty at New Jersey Natural Gas worksites and to order the construction halted.
Menna and downtown business interests, already blowing a gasket over what they have termed the company’s “medieval,” “spiteful” and “arrogant” displays of power, said NJNG has visibly ramped up its efforts to move gas valves from sub-sidewalk pits to above-ground spots adjacent to storefronts. And it is doing so without obtaining necessary construction permits, they said.
Based on that failure, Menna said he consulted with borough Attorney Dan O’Hern before asking police Chief Steve McCarthy to yank officers from site work and to have cops order the workers to pack it in.
At about 11:20 a.m., redbankgreen came upon an NJNG crew doing just that, outside the Monmouth Street building that was once the borough hall and is now home to the office of 11th-District state Senator Jennifer Beck, another vehement opponent of the valve removal campaign.
Company workers confirmed that police had ordered them to leave, and they said they were complying, putting up an orange barrel next to what appeared to be a nearly complete replacement valve.
Minutes later, other NJNG workers were found taking air samples at a valve pit on Wallace Street, just steps from Broad Street. Those workers were apparently not affected by the directive, and one of them told redbankgreen he was unaware of it.
“They don’t tell us,” he said. “We don’t hear what’s going on sometimes until we’re back at the shop.”
The company, Menna said, is racing to replace to finish all 88 underground valves in the business district before the court rules” on the town’s still-developing legal effort to stop it. It’s motivation, he and others contend, is to make a reversal of the work less feasible if the court rules in the town’s favor.
Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson ruled last month that NJNG has the right to continue without obtaining zoning office approval, though the ruling did not exempt the company from obtaining a building permit for each worksite.
“It’s amazing that a company that espouses being a good community partner refuses to get building permits everyone else must get,” said Menna.
NJNG spokesman Mike Kinney, however, said the company interpreted Lawson’s ruling as “approving our application in its entirety,” and obviating the need for permits. He said company lawyers had advised the court of the town’s action. Meantime, he said, employees had been told to comply with police orders.
“We have no desire to put our employees in a confrontational situation,” he said. “So that work has stopped” while the company seeks an interpretation from Lawson.
Menna said he had begun researching the possibility of ending the borough government’s purchases of gas from NJNG “to see if we can break this monopoly.”
Through the downtown, shopkeepers expressed disbelief at what they said was the company’s disregard for their interests in keeping the valves underground. Opponents of the relocation have said the valves are safer underground, where they can’t be hit by cars, and are an aesthetic detriment to their properties and the streetscape.
“They’re just being incredibly spiteful,” said Nancy Adams, executive director of the downtown promotion agency Red Bank RiverCenter, which is locked in litigation with NJNG and its parent company, New Jersey Resources, over the valve issue. “It’s just a blatant, hateful move on the part of the company. It’s disgusting.”
Throughout the dispute, the company has maintained that corrosion of the valves in the pits is greater than above ground, posing an issue of possible leaks. The borough and RiverCenter maintain that the company has flatly refused to produce any data supporting that assertion.