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The InTowner
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Periodically we hear bursts of talk from DC officials and politicians about the importance of enhancing the “quality of life” in the neighborhoods, usually in the context of imposing some new or expanded regulation to control our lives. While we applaud genuine efforts to achieve a better local environment for us in the city, we would like to see attention given to one particularly disagreeable intrusion throughout our historic districts and along other attractive streets: incredibly ugly utility meters.

It’s almost as if Washington Gas and Pepco strive to go out of their corporate way to purposefully deface the fronts of handsome houses and attractive front yards. This is not only distressing to homeowners but to anybody who views this visual defacing that keeps spreading. The problem is especially disconcerting — and this seems to be particularly prevalent with Pepco — when huge panels with multiple meters are erected directly in front of a house or small building inside of which there are multiple apartments.

Why this approach to meter installation is allowed by the city’s regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over the actions of the public utilities leaves us puzzled indeed. This is a problem that is nothing new and has been known to officials for quite some time. For example, several years ago the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DCMAP) was so bothered by work being done by Washington Gas on Connecticut Avenue that they enlisted help from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the Mayor’s office, and staff in the Historic Preservation Office. That effort did result in some success in getting newly installed meters relocated.

But that was clearly an ad-hoc effort and we wonder why that didn’t start a comprehensive effort by the bureaucracy to try to bring a degree of rationality to the process of siting utility meters and with it precise guidelines for the utility companies to follow and straightforward procedures to guide property owners in challenging installation location decisions by the utilities.

In an effort to be of help last year, we have learned, the Historic Districts Coalition did engage staff persons in the Historic Preservation Office, the transportation department’s public space office, and the consumer and regulatory affairs department, as well as Pepco — though we have not heard about involvement with the gas company. This effort was focused on trying to identify more satisfactory solutions that could avoid the installation of Pepco’s dreadfully ugly meter panels smack-dab in front of historic properties and others of distinction.

Interestingly, although staff people in the historic preservation and public space offices make the point that doing these poorly placed meter installations may not be permitted by agency regulations, it seems that the utility companies have been getting a free ride from the bureaucracy for years when it comes to this activity. Maybe it is time for the city’s Public Service Commission or even the City Council to address this problem head-on. But it is certainly high time to reign in the free-wheeling approach favored by the utilities.