Deer Lakes Park drilling plan approved by Allegheny County Council, 9-5

Allegheny County Council voted 9-5 early this morning to allow non-surface natural gas drilling beneath the county-owned Deer Lakes Park.

After much debate and hours of public comment, members of council gave county Executive Rich Fitzgerald the votes he needed to pass a plan allowing the county to enter into what Mr. Fitzgerald has called the “most comprehensive nonsurface” gas lease in Pennsylvania.

The approved ordinance leases the county’s oil and gas rights beneath the 1,180-acre park in West Deer and Frazer to driller Range Resources.

The scene was raucous after the vote, with drilling opponents yelling “shame” and Councilman Nicholas Futules, D-Oakmont, swearing at one of the more than 100 people who attended the meeting at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.

Voting in favor of the ordinance were: Mr. Futules and fellow Democrats John DeFazio, of Shaler, Bob Macey of West Mifflin, Michael Finnerty of Scott, Charles Martoni of Swissvale, Jim Ellenbogen of Banksville, and John Palmiere of Baldwin and Republicans Tom Baker of Ross and Ed Kress of Shaler.

Voting against were Democrats Barbara Daly Danko of Regent Square, and Bill Robinson of the Hill District, along with Republicans Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon, Jan Rea of McCandless and Sue Means of Bethel Park. Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights, abstained due to her husband’s business interests involving Range.

The lease will yield $4.7 million to the county, $3 million to a parks improvement fund and 18 percent in royalties that have been estimated at more than $50 million. Of the proceeds from the lease, Mr. Fitzgerald said he expected the county would put $2 million toward improvements for Deer Lakes Park, including upgrades to the popular Wagman Observatory.

Mr. Fitzgerald called the decision a “victory” for taxpayers, for people who use the parks and for the residents of Frazer and West Deer. He said he would sign the ordinance, and the lease, shortly.

Gwen Chute, a member of Protect Our Parks, said the organization would consider legal action to stop the drilling.

“We, the members of Protect Our Parks, are outraged that the County Council has ignored the wishes of the majority of county residents and voted to allow Range Resources to frack under Deer Lakes Park,” the organization said in a statement.

As for legal challenges, Mr. Fitzgerald said the county is often sued on contentious issues, but that he believed the ordinance would withstand challenges.

“Absolutely, it will stand up in court,” he said.

The issue is one that has inspired not just debate, but passion, and prior to the vote, several council members spoke their peace.

"I'm not naive to the fact that we need energy," Ms. Danko said. "I do think ... that the parks are different."

She said she could not support the ordinance.

"We did not do what we needed to do," Ms. Danko said.

For Mr. Finnerty, the vote came at the end of what has been a long focus by the county.

"It's been an exhaustive thing," he said before the vote. "I've read that lease so any times."

Mr. Kress, whose district includes the park, said he had originally been against the ordinance because of questions about royalty payments.

But he said he spent this week going out to homes in West Deer and knocking on doors, asking his constituents for their thoughts.

He said he decided the lease was a way to secure a future for his district.

"There's opportunity here, and I'm not turning opportunity down," he said.

Prior to the vote, council rejected an amendment put forward by Ms. Heidelbaugh to add additional language to the ordinance, such as further groundwater and roadway protections.

County solicitor Andrew Szefi said the proposed amendment would require re-negotiation of the lease, disrupting the deal between Range and the county.

Mr. Robinson’s amendment proposed inserting language regarding involvement of black Allegheny County residents and community college students in Range’s plans.

This morning's vote completed a chapter on an issue that has been a dominant topic for County Council for weeks.

Mr. Fitzgerald announced the deal with Range and its Monroeville partner Huntley & Huntley in March, then held a public meeting about the event in early April. Range officials have said wells extending beneath the park would extend from three well pads on private property surrounding the park.

Mr. Futules, chair of the parks committee, held three meetings to discuss environmental and safety, legal and economic factors stemming from the lease, inviting speakers from Range and Huntley, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the county.

Ms. Means, who said she was disappointed by the speaker lineup, held an additional meeting last week with her own speakers.

The trio of meetings ended with council members approving an amended version of the Deer Lakes ordinance, which was sponsored by Mr. DeFazio and added details from the lease into the ordinance.

The council’s vote came after nearly five hours of public comment Tuesday night.

More than 80 members of the public spoke to council. Council members heard, as they have for weeks, from people who argued that the lease would grow an industry that was bringing jobs to Western Pennsylvania and provide funding for improving the county parks system.

“I really feel that we need to do this project, just to prove that drilling can be done right,” said James Converse of South Park.

They also heard from opponents of drilling.

“If you vote to protect the parks, you can tell your children that you stood up to protect the beauty of Deer Lakes Park,” said Russell Fedorka of Elizabeth.

Some voicing opposition said they support fracking, just not in parks.

“You can drill wherever you want where it’s appropriate — industrial areas,” said George Jucha of Moon.

Members of Protect Our Parks, several in their signature green scarves, stood around the room holding up a long scroll of what Joni Rabinowitz said was a list of more than 7,000 people against drilling in county parks.

“Our job is to protect them, not industrialize them,” said Ed Chute of Mt. Lebanon.

Others criticized the council’s process leading up to the vote.

“I cannot believe that you have done your due diligence,” said Dana Dolney of Polish Hill, a comment that Mr. Ellenbogen objected to by briefly leaving the room.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707. Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903. First Published May 6, 2014 6:10 PM

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