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A line of recently installed gas meters is seen in the first block of East Walnut Street. 

UGI’s insistence on installing its large, squat gas meters outside buildings rather than inside might be annoying to property owners. In historic districts it might be “desecration,” as Mayor Rick Gray put it last month.

But is it unconstitutional? Lancaster might soon ask the state Supreme Court to decide.

In conjunction with Reading and possibly Allentown and Carlisle, the Red Rose City is looking at filing a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against UGI’s state regulator, the Public Utility Commission, city solicitor Barry Handwerger told City Council at its committee meeting Monday night.

The argument

The lawsuit would argue that the PUC’s rule on gas meter locations in historic districts is so lax that it fails to meet the agency’s constitutional obligations.

Article 1 of the state Constitution says Pennsylvania “shall conserve and maintain” its “public natural resources,” including their “historic and esthetic values.”

Handwerger said the law firm of Eastburn & Gray would handle the litigation, which is projected to cost $130,000 at most. Lancaster’s maximum outlay could range from $40,000 to $90,000, depending on whether Allentown and Carlisle take part.

Council would have to authorize the action by ordinance. Assuming it’s introduced next Tuesday, that would allow a vote Nov. 28.

The municipalities participating in the lawsuit would form a steering committee. Other municipalities could weigh in, too, Handwerger said, the more the better.

A PUC spokesman declined to comment because the planned lawsuit has not been filed.

The agency’s rules say gas utilities must “consider” inside meter placement within a historic district, but that’s all.

“It really means nothing in practice,” Handwerger said.

UGI has said it has a strong preference for outside meter installation, for reasons of safety and convenience.

The company has embarked upon a multi-year project of replacing gas lines and meters. Lancaster property owners and city officials have complained that UGI is installing meters where it wants, ignoring their requests and is indifferent to their concerns.

Together, Lancaster’s Heritage Conservation District and smaller Local Historic District cover the downtown and most of the surrounding neighborhoods, so a stronger rule on meter placement could have a significant effect.

Handwerger said the lawsuit can be expected to end up before the state Supreme Court. Recent cases suggest that the justices would be open to the constitutional argument, he said.

“I think the timing is good,” he said.

Minicasinos

In other business Monday, council discussed plans to opt out of the state’s new minicasino program. Municipalities have until the end of the year to do so, and Gray has directed Handwerger to draft the necessary resolution for Council’s action, Chief of Staff Pat Brogan said.

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