Small town in Centre County to vote on local environmental bill of rights

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A referendum related to environmental rights set for a vote in Centre County's Ferguson Township, to the immediate southwest of State College, has triggered some controversy between the township and the provision's supporters.

Members of Groundswell PA, a group advocating for sustainable communities, successfully petitioned to get an environmental bill of rights on the Nov. 6 ballot. The group did the same in State College last year, and voters approved the provision.

The measure would amend the township's home rule charter to state that residents have rights to clean air and water, self-government and a sustainable energy future. It also would ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process being used across the state to drill for natural gas.

When the petition first was presented for inclusion on the ballot, Ferguson officials planned to file an injunction in county court, seeking a ruling on the question's constitutionality. However, solicitor Lewis Steinberg advised that residents must first have their say. If the bill of rights is approved, the township may decide to challenge it, if deemed appropriate.

"If the proposed amendment were to pass, Ferguson Township's Board of Supervisors would be placed in the untenable position of having to go to the expense of attempting to defend a law which it knew was not enforceable," Mr. Steinberg said in a news release Wednesday.

The township and Groundswell could not agree on shortened language for the ballot, so the county commissioners approved a version.

Jeffrey Kurland, a resident who helped Groundswell gather the petition signatures to get the bill of rights on the ballot, criticized the township for "fear-mongering and misinformation," based on information posted on the township's website and sent in a flier to residents.

The information tells voters that the amendment would change "landowner rights, opens the township to lawsuits and puts the future of our community in financial jeopardy."

It indicates, as has been argued in the township previously, and in State College during a similar vote last year, that the amendment is not consistent with state law. While home rule charter municipalities have some flexibility, they still must adhere to state law.

The website also offers a link to the entire text of the potential amendment.

C-NET, the local government and educational channel, has posted a video showing a debate on the issue between Mr. Kurland and Dan Weaver, of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.

Related to the issue of a person's mineral rights, Mr. Kurland said the question becomes, "What are the rights of the neighbors, who may have their water tainted, who may have roads broken up" by drilling activity.

"There are all sorts of things that are associated with fracking," he said. "People always think of the drilling, but it's the whole industrial apparatus that supports that.

"People say, that's my lease, those are my mineral rights. Yes, they are. Can I sell them? Well, yes, you can. If it violates other neighbors and the community, that would violate this bill of rights."

Mr. Kurland said reaction from residents he's spoken to has been mostly positive, and that Groundswell will continue campaigning through Tuesday.

"People think this is going to produce more rules and regulations, but it doesn't," he said. "These are just rights and rights are protected."

Township Manager Mark Kunkle said he's spoken to some people who found the township's mailing, which cost $3,655.47 to send, informative and some who found it biased.

environment - legalnews


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