Gas meters in historic districts may face additional scrutiny

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)

If Betty Ann Kane wants to replace the windows of her Capitol Hill home, the permit would need review by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office to ensure there’s no damage to the fabric of the designated historic district where she lives.

Accordingly, Kane told The Current, “it seems to be reasonable that the Historic Preservation Office could come up with regulations regarding the placement of gas meters.”

Kane is the chair of the city’s Public Service Commission, which oversees the rates, safety, reliability and quality of the District’s electricity, natural gas and telecommunications services. The commission has an open case regarding complaints that Washington Gas has damaged the aesthetic of historic neighborhoods — including areas of Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom — with unsightly installations of exterior gas meters.

With limited authority to govern aesthetics, however, the commission has convened a group of stakeholders that recently began working on the issue, Kane said. In addition to commission staff and Washington Gas, participants include representatives of the Historic Preservation Office; the D.C. Department of Transportation, which reviews applications for gas work in public space like a street or the city-owned portion of a front yard; and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which handles those on private property.

The Historic Preservation Office, part of the Office of Planning, already has advisory guidelines on meter installations in historic districts. Office of Planning spokesperson Edward Giefer told The Current that the city agencies are collaborating to ensure that work by Washington Gas adheres to existing regulations, and also to craft an update to the guidelines.

The issues arose out of a citywide Washington Gas effort to relocate interior gas meters when doing other gas work nearby. The Public Service Commission’s regulations call for the meters to be located outside when possible for safety reasons, but some old homes still have them indoors.

Owners of small row houses — such as on Snows Court NW in Foggy Bottom — cried foul when the relocated gas meters dominated their facades. Snows Court, part of the Foggy Bottom Historic District, was lined with meters and with the metal posts designed to protect them from passing cars. Residents complained that their homes were scarred and, in some cases, it was even difficult to open their front doors.

The D.C. Office of the People’s Counsel, which represents ratepayers in matters related to utility companies, brought the issue to the Public Service Commission last year. The office’s filing argued that Washington Gas harmed property values by locating meters in “apparently the most expedient location without regard to aesthetics.”

In a recent interview, People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye said the Public Service Commission’s process has been productive.

“I’m very pleased that the commission and the other stakeholders responded favorably to OPC’s petition, and recognized that those issues are issues that have real-life consequences for consumers,” Mattavous-Frye said. Furthermore, although the specific solution is still “subject to discussion,” she said, “there is general consensus that something needs to be done.”

Washington Gas spokesperson Bernie Tylor said the company could not comment because the commission’s review remains a legal matter. In a written filing in January, the company said that after the Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom complaints, it moved to enhance customer notification and customer-relations training; “sensitize” contractors to the concerns in historic districts; and improve its system for handling customer complaints. It also argued that some complaints were overblown and warned against slow regulatory reviews that would hinder its ability to work efficiently.

Mattavous-Frye said that Washington Gas appeared to be receptive to feedback during the stakeholder meeting — perhaps, she said, because the Public Service Commission must approve its ongoing attempt to merge with AltaGas. “My personal opinion is that they feel it’s opportune to be as cooperative as possible,” she said.

Mattavous-Frye would like to see gas meters kept indoors in historic districts, as already takes place in Georgetown. Although that neighborhood is subject to stricter review as a federal historic district, she said, “to me that doesn’t justify an inequitable treatment.”

Kane said her commission will ensure that any regulatory changes “conform to safety needs.” She added that she’s optimistic that exterior meters can be installed appropriately in most cases — such as on her own home, where it’s tucked away under her front steps.

“It doesn’t show; it’s not sticking out in your face,” she said. “There are ways to do it so it doesn’t look unattractive.”

Kane also encouraged residents with complaints about Washington Gas work to contact the commission’s Office of Consumer Services at 202-626-5100.

“We want to obviously be sure that things are being installed properly,” said Kane. “Whether people are concerned about safety or repair and damage to their property, we want to make sure that Washington Gas is doing it right.”