Baltimore’s preservation commission devoted the first portion of its July monthly meeting to discussion of the dispute between BGE and the residents of at least eight Baltimore City neighborhoods. The fight, which has escalated into a lawsuit, centers on placement of external gas pressure regulators on homes in primarily historic neighborhoods.
The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) oversees Baltimore City’s historic districts and landmarks, and manages the city’s local historic preservation tax credit program. Its commissioners are appointed by the mayor, and it is part of the Department of Planning.
CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb read from a report he prepared based on a meeting he had with BGE last week on the matter. The report consisted of a summary of the issue, the background, CHAP actions regarding BGE’s work, legal considerations, other considerations, conclusions, neighborhood comments he has received, and recommendations.
CHAP has been aware of the issue since at least March 2022, when they held an informational hearing on BGE regulators to verify the utility company’s rationale for placing regulators on the outsides of homes based on the Flower Branch Act. The act was passed in 2021 after a 2016 catastrophic gas explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland that killed seven people and injured many more. That legislation, however, requires regulators be placed on the exterior of homes that are new construction and/or multi-unit properties (six dwellings or more) — none of which applies to the residences involved in this new lawsuit.
CHAP still issued Authorization to Proceed forms for these regulators “requiring that the regulators are placed in the least visually obtrusive place possible and streets and sidewalks are repaired to match the look of prior conditions,” according to Holcomb’s report.
Residents in the lawsuit show that has not been the case, with photos showing regulators obstructing their property.
The hearing room was filled with many residents in attendance. There was audible laughter when Holcolmb told the commissioners that BGE is working on “creating safe covers” for the gas regulators.
“I’ll bet some of those engineers are going to fill some of those covers up and light them on fire to see if they explode. So they are working the safety angle, and they said that they would work with CHAP staff for cover designs,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb said BGE will allow residents to paint the regulators or put flower pots in front of them, solutions residents found unacceptable because of potential liability for accidents and narrowing of already narrow sidewalks in their historic neighborhoods.
He acknowledged conflicting law about permit requirements and whether this work constituted “minor repairs,” stating plans to direct those issues to the commission’s law department for guidance and clarification.
Holcomb said residents overwhelmingly oppose BGE’s project, writing in his report that “few residents have supported the exterior installation of these regulators because of safety concerns.”
Commissioners asked questions and discussed the degree to which BGE should be made to disclose their plans to CHAP before proceeding with work.
Commissioner Kuo Pao Lian described experience with other utilities wherein they’d insisted upon and received detailed drawings to account for how the utility companies would deal with construction, replacing, and repairing materials.
“The report stated that CHAP staff had been provided approved ATPs (Authorizations to Proceed) for work in the past, right? I’m just curious about what level of product was brought to the staff,” Lian said. “You figure that BGE would still need to provide a comprehensive plan for a strategy that could still be a blanket strategy but that identifies all these different occurrences that shows how they would approach dealing with properties in the historic districts and they haven’t done that.”
Commissioner Garrett Power said CHAP shouldn’t undertake the job of regulating public safety, and should instead leave that to the purview of the Public Service Commission and work on design solutions later.
Holcomb said he’d received an email saying Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and other cities have prohibited utilities on the exterior of houses, and that he was going to follow up on that information.
Commissioner Mayra Medeleev asked if building owners had any input as to where and how the regulators are installed. “Is there any way building owners can get out in front of the installation crews to have a little bit of input or discussion about how these things are installed before you have to call and say, ‘Hey, you messed up, you need to re-do it?’”
Holcomb said, “Those are great questions, and I think those are the sorts of questions I would like to ask BGE as well as residents of those historic districts. I know that BGE does have an outreach program to talk to the neighborhoods about this, I know that they cannot put these on the exterior of the property without permission from the owner, so there has to be some communication.”
There have been numerous meetings and communications between BGE and neighborhood organizations about the installations of regulators on the exterior of homeowners’ properties. At issue is BGE having threatened to cut off gas service to residences whose owners do not agree to the installation. Residents have been objecting for months not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because of safety concerns.
After three city residents were arrested for physically blocking BGE from shutting off gas to homes on a block of Warren Avenue for which BGE did not have a permit to work, Thiru Vignarajah filed the lawsuit on behalf of 14 named plaintiffs and a class action that has grown to over 400 members. Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general, has been working as counsel pro bono and spokesperson for the residents involved in the lawsuit.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge John S. Nugent granted residents a ten-day temporary restraining order (TRO) against BGE, forbidding the utility company from installing the outdoor regulators and vents without the residents’ permission, stopped BGE from threatening residents with gas service shut-off, and requiring BGE to restore service to homes whose service they’d terminated over the issue. A preliminary hearing was set for Monday, July 10, 2023.
However, the following week BGE filed a strategic motion trying to cancel the preliminary hearing because they voluntarily agreed to stop installing the regulators without consent of the residents. Nugent rejected that motion, and instead extended the temporary restraining order for an additional 60 days. The July 10 hearing has been rescheduled for Sept. 5, 2023, at 9:30 a.m.
While the City Council is having a public hearing on the matter on Wednesday at 5 p.m., Holcomb recommended that CHAP have its own formal public hearing, requesting testimony from BGE, the Public Service Commission, and stakeholders to determine whether CHAP will formally approve the current process, change it, or vote to disapprove the exterior installation.
After Tuesday’s CHAP meeting, residents raised questions about CHAP having a meeting with BGE without them knowing anything about it, and likewise took issue with those commissioners who felt they had no role in determining safety outcomes.
Vignarajah said to residents after the meeting, “When the commissioner says, ‘It’s not our job to weigh in on safety,’ you’ve made an assumption about safety.”
“I thought a rep from BGE was running the meeting,” said Claudia Towles, board member of the Fells Point Residents’ Association. “The misinformation given to the commissioner is the same the residents have received over and over again.”
Towles was encouraged, however, that some of the commissioners “raised questions that were in the representation of public interest.” Holcomb has agreed to meet with Vignarajah and several plantiffs “within the week to correct misinformation and provide details about what we’ve uncovered,” Towles said.
In an email on Wedesday, Holcomb told Baltimore Fishbowl that BGE requested a meeting when he’d requested BGE stop installation of exterior regulators in historic districts. The attendees were representatives from BGE and Holcomb, who wrote that he views BGE as an applicant.
“Any applicant of CHAP is welcome to request a meeting, which in almost all cases I will accept,” Holcomb wrote to Baltimore Fishbowl. “These meetings usually result in a clearer understanding of CHAP’s and the applicant’s position, a clearer process forward, and usually better outcomes.”
Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to BGE for comment.