An NJNG crew packs it in after being ordered by police to stop work on a nearly completed gas regulator valve replacement on Monmouth Street in October, 2012. Below, a Monmouth Street valve that was struck by a falling tree during Hurricane Sandy. (Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Remember the flap over the regulator valves that New Jersey Natural Gas Company moved above-ground along storefronts over the objections of Red Bank officials and merchants two years ago?
They’re unsafe, borough officials said. They’re ugly, too, said business owners and officials at RiverCenter, the downtown promotion agency. Mayor Pasquale Menna called them “monstrous carbuncles” forced upon the town by an “arrogant” utility company.
They’re also illegal, according to a state appellate panel ruing issued Tuesday.
Reversing a Superior Court trial ruling, a three-judge panel found that the 88 above-ground valves were illegally installed, giving the borough and RiverCenter a win in an extended showdown that once saw Red Bank cops shutting down a utility crew.
In a 32-page decision, a three-judge panel ruled that NJNG could not claim an exemption from the borough’s land-use law and move the valves from their sub-sidewalk vaults to above-ground spots adjacent to storefronts without first applying for and obtaining development permits.
Here’s the ruling: NJNG v. Red Bank, Appellate Division Opinion
The decision “give municipalities a lot of say in regards to how utilities deliver their service,” and thus has potential impact beyond Red Bank, said RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone. “One of NJNG’s arguments was that they have total control over how they deliver their product. This says otherwise.”
It’s not clear, however, whether the ruling will prompt NJNG to return the valves to the still-extant vaults. In a prepared statement, the company said the decision to relocate the regulators “was the right thing to do then and it is the right thing to do today. The Appeals Court ruling does not change that, nor does it require us to take any action.”
In a meeting with reporters at the Oyster Point Hotel Tuesday evening, Menna said the town “didn’t want them in the first place. This decision seems to say they need local approval where there is an ordinance in place, and we have an ordinance” that requires permits for construction work.
The company has claimed the vaults harbor moisture that causes corrosion and possible leaks. The borough and RiverCenter maintain that the company has flatly refused to produce any data supporting that assertion.
The dispute grew heated two years ago, when Menna directed the police chief to pull cops off traffic duty at NJNG worksites and to order the construction halted.
Since then, there have been two incidents involving exposed regulators. In one, a vehicle crashed into the Brownstone Cleaners, missing a valve by inches. And during Hurricane Sandy, a tree fell on one outside a Monmouth Street gym, prompting a gas leak.
Menna, who has previously called NJNG’s behavior in the matter “medieval” and “spiteful,” said Tuesday that the town and RiverCenter may now have to have discussions with the company.
“You have to sleep with the elephant,” he said, “but at the same time, you want the elephant to have traditional respect for the bed partner.”