Cocalico Corner: You can fight with City Hall

By on July 15, 2015

You can’t fight City Hall!

How often have you heard that?

How often have you said that?

And, do you believe that?

I’ve got some breaking news for you: Sometimes, the tables are turned and City Hall has to do the fighting.

These days, you’ll find officials in city halls &tstr; or township or borough buildings &tstr; saying “You can’t fight the utilities!” And, they have good reason to say that.

As a reporter and as an elected official, I’m witnessing or participating in at least two of these fights right now.

In my capacity at the Ephrata Review, West Cocalico Township is my beat. For a year now, I’ve covered the township’s ongoing problems with PPL, the electric utility serving large portions of Lancaster County.

About a year ago, PPL constructed a substation on Swamp Bridge Road. It’s a great thing, to be sure, for improving customer service. But it’s not so great for the township and its residents.

Why? PPL, like other utilities in Pennsylvania, answers only to the Public Utility Commission, the PUC. What that means is PPL, like other utilities, can pretty much thumb their noses at municipal and even some state regulations.

In the substation matter, PPL officials just went ahead and built as they pleased. Forget working with the township planning commission, forget dealing with issues like road setbacks, stormwater management, and little things like guiderails to protect vehicles from veering into swales placed too close to the roadway.

West Cocalico supervisors have been waging legal letter-based skirmishes with PPL in an effort to have some of the issues mitigated. PPL has countered that much of the contention is without merit &tstr; that the township bears nearly all liability, not the utility.

In the November, the state Department of Environmental Protection/Waterways and Wetlands Program, weighed in. The situation, especially going into the winter months when water covered the road, was a public health and safety issue, the department declared, and demanded it be fixed.

Still, little happened. The site awaits guiderails and swale correction (Who will blink first on this? Likely the township.). And, the topic remains listed on each meeting agenda, including the one of July 14.

Here’s how it looked under Old Business, Item B: “PPL &tstr; nothing new to report.”

Over in Reading, my neck of the woods, the utility villain of the moment is UGI. We are experiencing the same situation as our peer cities of Lancaster and Bethlehem: the placement of ungainly gas meters in front of buildings, rather than to the side, rear, or keeping them in the interior.

What the new placement has done is tear up streets and sidewalks. On the city’s narrowest &tstr; or what are known as half streets &tstr; it’s not uncommon to see meters within 24 inches of the curb.

To the PUC’s credit, some new rules were instituted in the autumn of 2014. The rules say that UGI may keep the meters on the interiors within historic district boundaries.

The key word here is “may.” UGI officials contend they have the final say. Period. End of story.

So, PUC, thanks for nothing, more or less.

But in Reading, a citizens group has sprung up to fight back, to make the point that public safety and aesthetics should trump a utility’s actions.

City Hall, in this case City Council, supports the citizens and is working to strengthen — and enforce — existing ordinances that provide some protect from rough-riding utilities.

Will those ordinances carry legal weight? Will City Hall and the citizens end up in court? What role will the PUC be playing?

I (and likely my fellow councilors) can sympathize with the West Cocalico supervisors though the scope, parties involved, and issues are very different.

Perhaps sometimes you can’t fight City Hall.

But sometimes, City Hall — or the Township Building — will join in the citizens’ fight for what’s right.

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