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Three hours of gripes from angry residents at a Wednesday town hall meeting couldn't convince Columbia Gas to stop installing gas meters on the front of historical  buildings in downtown York City.

Roughly 50 residents, along with Mayor Michael Helfrich, prodded the company's vice president and representatives from the investigative branch of the state Public Utility Commission to end the practice, which they said creates eyesores in the city's historic district.

But safety concerns, the reason given for the installations, prevailed.

"Safety will continue to be the driving force of all of our discussions," said Columbia Gas vice president Andrew Tubbs, later adding he didn't have an exact date as to when the company would resume installing the meters on historical buildings.

But it will do so despite temporarily halting the practice earlier this month in response to public backlash, he said during the meeting at City Hall.

More: Columbia Gas halts meter installs amid public backlash in York City

More: York City to hold public meeting about gas meters outside historic buildings

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The practice stems from a regulation implemented by the PUC that was updated in 2014, which only requires companies to consider a property's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The regulation does not require that historical buildings be exempted. 

During the meeting, Tubbs confirmed the company has never met with the city's Historical Architectural Review Board to discuss potentially exempting buildings that may fall under the regulation.

Helfrich, along with other residents, criticized the lack of care for the city's historical buildings, the vagueness of the regulations and the great power given to utility companies such as Columbia Gas.

"You can't enforce things that are this nebulous," Helfrich said. "We've got a lot of language in this that doesn't seem like law at all. ... I don’t see how you can enforce these things that aren’t consistent.”

The city also has concerns with data presented by the PUC to justify the regulation, Helfrich said, as the commission provided examples of explosions resulting from inside meters but not those that involved outside meters.

Kevin Brown, who is legally blind, noted that the setup of his property would require an "ugly" outside meter that would have to be placed by his front steps.

"I'm legally blind," Brown said. "Even if I'm not in a fire and need to get out, do you understand how easy it would be to trip over (the meter) and injure myself? ...The meters indeed are ugly. And even being blind I can tell you that."

But the concerns weren't enough for Columbia Gas, as Tubbs asserted the company is still bound by the PUC safety regulation that has been challenged in court to no avail in the past.

The PUC claims the meters are safer because gas won't leak into enclosed areas like a basement and are easier to access outside of homes. It cites a 2008 explosion in Hummelstown among other incidents.

On the other hand, Doug Smallwood, a York City resident who worked as an operations manager and business operations specialist for Columbia Gas' Pennsylvania branch, disputed the claim, saying that medium-to-high gas pressure poses a great threat in congested parts of the city.

Potential vandalism was also an issue that was brought up in the meeting, as many residents said they expect outside meters to be tinkered with. The PUC regulation includes a possible exemption for this purpose.

Although Columbia Gas will eventually resume installing the outside meters, it has changed how it goes about sending out 30-day notices for meter installations.

The company will now begin to send out letters in both English and Spanish to better serve the city's extensive Spanish-speaking population, reword the letter to make it easier to understand and send letters to both property owners and renters to ensure all parties are notified.

The company also can work with residents to install shields in front of the meters to or paint them, Tubbs said.

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said she'd be meeting with state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, to brainstorm possible legislative ways to address the regulation. But it's unclear what they could do, she added.

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.

Columbia Gas couldn't immediately provide data showing whether any historical buildings in the city have been exempted from the outside meter under the regulation's language.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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