Columbia Gas halts meter installs amid public backlash in York City
Columbia Gas has temporarily halted its installation of gas meters outside of homes in the York City historic district following backlash from residents and elected officials.
Residents lambasted the practice of putting the allegedly unsightly gas meters on historic buildings at a York City Council meeting on Tuesday, drawing the attention of state lawmakers.
As of Friday, July 19, Columbia Gas had temporarily stopped the practice, and on Monday the company will meet with city officials in a closed meeting.
"Columbia Gas has temporarily ceased work on this portion of our infrastructure replacement program in the city of York until we can hold meetings with city officials, HARB (Historical Architectural Review Board) leadership and individual residents and landlords and work to a solution to address residents' concerns," said Andrew Tubbs, a spokesman for Columbia Gas.
The outside meters stem from a safety regulation imposed by the state Public Utility Commission.
Under the regulation, historic districts and buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places can be exempted from the otherwise mandatory installation. Many residents assumed that meant gas companies were barred from installing the meters outside any of the buildings in the historic district.
However, gas companies are only required to consider keeping the meters inside in such locations. They then have the authority to carry on with moving them outside if they view it as still necessary.
York City's historic district covers an area bounded roughly by the Codorus Creek in the north, Princess Street to the south, Hartley Street in the west and Broad Street to the east, as well as the George Street corridor to Springettsbury Avenue.
The city can work toward putting the meters on the outside of homes or put up shields that may make the meters less unsightly, Columbia Gas officials have said. But that's not good enough for residents and officials.
"That is an absurd abuse of power to have a state-appointed commission and a private company supersede the historic designations and the desire of the property owners," said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich.
Residents have called the meters an eyesore that is especially detrimental to the city's prized, historic properties.
The meters are tacked onto the front of homes throughout the city and can extend up to two feet into the sidewalk, according to observers.
"They're an eyesore in front of people's houses," said Lou Rivera, a Democratic candidate for City Council. "It's such a slap in the face and offensive because it's happening in the poorest section of the community where I think people don't think they have a voice to fight."
PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said the regulation has been in effect for more than a decade, when there were several incidents involving gas leaks as well as a 2008 explosion in Hummelstown, Dauphin County.
Since then, the commission has tightened its regulations for the sake of safety.
"We need to make sure we have ready access to those meters to eliminate the risk in the event of emergency," said Columbia Gas spokeswoman Sarah Barczyk said. "Shut off valves in the street can sometimes be difficult to locate, or it can be difficult to determine which valve corresponds to a particular premises. Turning the valve on an outside meter is the best way to shut off gas to a premises in the event of an emergency."
The work has been coordinated with a decadelong effort to replace pipelines across the state. The company has replaced about 30 miles of pipeline in York City, she said.
State lawmakers representing the city have been inundated with calls over the past week about the meters, they have said. For the past few days, they've been pushing for a meeting like the one that is now on the table.
"We're trying to get the parties together to have a conversation," said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township. "This is a textbook case of why we need regulatory reform in the commonwealth."
State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said the residents were right about how ugly the meters are and also pressed for meetings with the PUC and Columbia Gas.
One problem with the regulation is that the language is problematic and often contradicts itself, Phillips-Hill said. Additionally, when the PUC was pushing for the regulation and citing specific incidents and explosions, it failed to provide sufficiently detailed accounts to the state.
Some lawmakers, as well as a majority of gas companies, opposed the regulation when it was presented, she added.
Municipalities throughout the state have written ordinances combating the regulation or have brought litigation against the PUC. The courts have continuously upheld PUC's regulation, ruling that it preempts city code.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.