Gas meter installations draw aesthetic complaints

The gas meters installed last year on Foggy Bottom's historic Snows Court NW, pictured in February 2017, sparked aesthetic complaints. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Amid complaints about gas meter installations across the city, including in designated historic districts, Washington Gas is pushing back against calls for additional oversight of such projects.

The D.C. Office of the People’s Counsel, which represents ratepayers in matters related to utility companies, is asking the city’s Public Service Commission to develop stricter rules governing meter installations — and to block Washington Gas from installing more until such rules are in place.

As Washington Gas replaces a series of large gas mains, the company has also been taking the opportunity to relocate indoor gas meters outside of a home. The exterior meters — strongly favored under D.C. regulations — provide quicker, less disruptive access than those located indoors, and can also be safer.

But various D.C. residents have alleged that Washington Gas has made little to no effort to install the meters unobtrusively, creating problems with visual blight or even reduced access to doors or windows. Complaints have surfaced in Cleveland Park, Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill and elsewhere over the past year.

“The locations in which [Washington Gas] has chosen to place meters — i.e. apparently the most expedient location without regard to aesthetics — can have a material adverse [effect] on the property value of those homeowners,” the Office of the People’s Counsel argued in a Dec. 21 filing to the Public Service Commission. “This practice is not only a concern of District residents generally, but is of particular concern to residents in Historic Districts where the neighborhood aesthetic and the expectation that the neighborhood will retain its historic character are important drivers of property value.”

Washington Gas spokesperson Bernie Tylor declined to comment, citing the ongoing Public Service Commission case. But according to the company’s Jan. 19 filing, Washington Gas moved last fall to improve customer notification and customer-relations training; “sensitize” contractors to historic districts; and improve its system for handling customer complaints.

The company also argued that critics have exaggerated the extent of issues, stating that it already addressed many specific complaints the people’s counsel cited in Capitol Hill, and that other issues emerged when customers didn’t understand that the project was still underway. For instance, after installing a gas meter that requires bollards to protect it from nearby vehicles, Washington Gas later cuts off the top part of the bollard and paints it to blend in better with surroundings, the filing states. That full process was ultimately completed in Snows Court NW in Foggy Bottom — one of the prominent trouble spots last year — though despite the upgrades, the meters and their associated pipes and bollards still dominate some of these homes’ narrow facades.

Washington Gas’ filing does concede that an expedited schedule meant that the company was “not able to be as flexible with customers as usual,” but it warned against any “unnecessary delay” to upgrading its gas meters.

The people’s counsel has now asked the Public Service Commission — the District’s utility regulator — to develop clear design standards that allow Washington Gas to relocate meters while also protecting property owners from blight. The office wants gas meter installations to be suspended until these new standards are in place.

One historic district already has tighter standards in effect: Georgetown, which is federally protected rather than just by local D.C. designation. Washington Gas acknowledges the additional considerations for the federal district, but has also described its broader respect for preservation concerns across the city. Its January filing says crews are already told that “in some historic districts and some specific historic buildings, meters may have to be located in harmony with the historic character of the building or neighborhood.”

Still, criticisms have popped up in multiple locations.

“We’re in the position of having to tell people we cannot support alterations to their historic houses because they bought in a historic district. And yet public utilities … more or less have free hand without regard to historic district legislation,” said John Williams, then a member of ANC 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End), during a November meeting with Washington Gas’ Doreen Hope.

But when Williams asked Hope to consult with homeowners and the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, she said that step would be burdensome. “It would add an additional layer of review to our already heavily layered process,” she said.

“It would add an extra layer, but I don’t think it would be a bad layer to add,” countered Williams. “If it delays, it delays.”

The Historic Preservation Office does spell out advisory guidelines for utility meters in historic districts, stating that gas meters’ compact size typically makes them easy to install subtly. But the document also notes that property owners should ensure that location is not “visually obtrusive” — a step that critics contend Washington Gas did not follow, but which is also not currently mandatory.

Edward Giefer, spokesperson for the Office of Planning, which includes the Historic Preservation Office, told The Current that his agency will defer to the Public Service Commission on whether the procedure should change.

That commission is reviewing the filings by Washington Gas and the Office of the People’s Counsel to determine its next step, spokesperson Kellie Armstead Didigu said in February. She didn’t answer questions about how soon that could take place.