Peters discusses drilling on township land

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Residents shouldn't look for Marcellus Shale gas well rigs just yet in Peters, although council has begun discussing leasing public property for drilling.

"I anticipate more activity in the next few years, based on our ordinances," township manager Michael Silvestri said about an email he received from local drilling company EQT, which is interested in bidding on the right to drill on township-owned properties.

Council's reaction was mixed, with Councilman Robert Lewis saying he wanted to know more about potential damages to waterways before leasing the rights to drill beneath Peters Lake. Others, including Councilman James Berquist, said it would be "imprudent" not to explore such potential revenues.

An ordinance passed last year would prohibit surface drilling on township-owned properties but not horizontal drilling if the gas rig was placed on a nearby property.

"None of our park properties can be drilled on the surface," Mr. Silvestri said, according to the drilling overlay map approved last year.

"I think we need more information," Mr. Arcuri said. "I think we need to take a look at it. We owe that to the taxpayers."

Council will gather more information about safety concerns and revenues before deciding whether to submit a request for proposals from drillers. Even with a request for proposals, the township isn't obligated to allow drilling without public discussion, Mr. Arcuri said.

Also Monday, after months of workshops, public debate and tweaking, council voted 6-1 to pass a new comprehensive plan, expected to steer development in the township until 2022.

Unlike other previous comprehensive plans, this one, developed with the assistance of LSL Planning Inc. of Grand Rapids, Minn., for a $150,000 fee, will take the township close to build-out.

"It is important that council recognize that the comprehensive plan is a policy guide, not law," said planning director Ed Zuk, who estimated that about 35 percent of the township remains undeveloped.

The rest of Peters was developed in a frenetic pace over the past six decades, which saw population numbers leap from 3,000 residents in 1954 to about 22,000 today. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the population swelled by nearly 21 percent and it is expected to continue growing, increasing by 60 percent in the next 25 years, according to predictions from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission. The 20-square-mile township is now the most populous municipality in Washington County.

Chief among the changes in this comprehensive plan is a call for more flexible housing options, especially for empty-nesters, and less of a focus on single-family homes, which stress school populations and public resources.

With 95 percent of the township's housing stock as single-family homes, Mr. Zuk expects to see changes in the near future, including mixed use residential developments that could include patio homes, townhouses and duplexes in the Venetia and Bower Hill road corridor.

The zoning updates also are aimed at young professionals and empty nesters, with the creation of a town center -- something the township has never had.

Public input suggested residents want more walkable, densely occupied areas, such as a public square, Mr. Zuk said.

The plan identifies the intersection of Valleybrook and McMurray roads as ideal for such a formation, with buildings close to reconfigured streets and a dense mix of office, retail and residential use.

"This community thinks it's very important to connect," Mr. Zuk said.

But Councilwoman Monica Merrell, who voiced the only dissension on council, said there isn't infrastructure support for connectivity through the township.

"I think people need to be aware ... that the traffic volumes could increase in neighborhoods," Ms. Merrell said.

Other input from both the public and a 10-member steering committee assigned to oversee the process included a desire for conservation, or "green" construction methods that are environmentally sensitive.

That spawned a new zoning classification called "conservation residential," in which developers would be given consideration for minimal earth moving and for designing residential plans that accommodate the natural contours of the land.

To create less of a footprint, Mr. Zuk said, the township would be more flexible in lot size, setbacks, street design and other current requirements that make it necessary for developers to move a lot of earth.

Parks and open space have remained a priority for residents and would change little, while certain residential areas would be given more specific zoning guidelines.

Mr. Zuk said the township should be prepared to begin changing zoning regulations to reflect the new plan.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly quoted Peters Councilman Frank Arcuri saying he supports gas well drilling.

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