Businessman criticizes Peters drilling rules

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Peters council members on Monday got an earful from a longtime businessman who scolded the board for what he believes is a stripping of his property rights with regard to gas well drilling.

"I look at my farm as my 401(k). It's everything I have," said Bob Simmons, owner of Simmons Farms and a 51-year township resident.

Mr. Simmons blamed a drilling ordinance that the township passed last year for the banning of drilling on 80 acres of his 170-acre farm.  Mr. Simmons said he was also concerned about the township's lead role in opposing Act 13, the 2012 law governing Marcellus Shale gas well drilling in the state, and said that drilling impact fees would be lost as a result of litigation.

"It's very frustrating," Mr. Simmons said of the township's ordinance, which created a drilling overlay district requiring lots to be at least 40 acres for drilling to be allowed. Much of his property is separated into smaller plots and he isn't able to combine them, Mr. Simmons said, due to part of the ordinance that bans the practice.  "My rights were taken away from me and I think that's wrong."

Mr. Simmons' property is part of an 800-acre unit that signed a lease with Range Resources five years ago. With the lease set to expire soon, Mr. Simmons said he thinks it's unlikely the company will subject itself to the onerous township regulations.

"Peters Township is just too difficult to deal with," he said.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the company won't be venturing into the South Hills anytime soon.

"We have no plans to drill in Peters Township," he said.  Mr. Pitzarella said that while Range has recently commissioned some seismic testing of the area, it is for nearby communities, not Peters.

The township was one of seven municipalities that joined forces to challenge zoning provisions in the state's Act 13.  In December, the state Supreme Court declared major provisions of Act 13 -- including local zoning restrictions -- to be unconstitutional, although the decision wasn't expected to affect other parts of the law, such as the impact fee collected from drillers and distributed to local towns and counties to mitigate the impact of drilling.

Although no drilling has been done yet in Peters, the township has collected about $780,000 in impact fees over the past three years due to drilling near its borders. That, Mr. Simmons said, is unfair.

"When you oppose something fundamentally, you shouldn't be taking money from it," he said.

"I don't feel the least bit bad about taking the money," Councilman David Ball said.  "The impacts are here."

"Our objections were only to the zoning aspect of it," township manager Michael Silvestri said of the township's role in overturning part of Act 13. Mr. Silvestri said that 90 percent of the township can be reached by horizontal drilling.

Mr. Simmons said his lease was for non-surface drilling and that he doesn't expect drilling to take place anytime soon near his property.

Also Monday, council approved a plan to purchase road salt from a second vendor next winter after diminishing supplies couldn't be replenished this season due to restricted river traffic.

The township will continue purchasing 4,000 tons of salt per year through its participation in a South Hills government-purchasing coalition, but it will also buy an additional 1,000 tons through a state contract program to ensure a diversity among suppliers. The contracts mean the municipality must purchase at least 80 percent of its estimated order, and the companies agree to provide as much as 125 percent of the estimate at the contracted price.  

Ice jams on local rivers this season delayed salt deliveries for many local municipalities, which rely on a constant supply through barge delivery. Salt deliveries in Peters were weeks behind and could result in a fine for Cargill, the company contracted to supply it within one week of order.  The township will have used about 5,000 tons of salt by the end of this winter season.

Council on Monday also:

• Recognized township police Officer David Stanton for his 24 years as the D.A.R.E. — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — officer in the Peters Township School District. Known as "Officer Dave" among students, he was also recognized by a group of students at McMurray Elementary School with a wall mural depicting some of his favorite things, like trains and pizza.

• Voted 5-1 to approve a fleet safety program at the urging of township insurance carriers, which requested the township conduct annual reviews of employees' driving records and increase oversight of township-owned vehicle usage and safety. Councilwoman Monica Merrell dissented, saying she thought the new policy was a "little weak" because it excluded consequences for employees with imperfect driving records. Councilwoman Megan Jones-Rolla was absent.

• Approved a contract renewal with ServiceMaster by Guthrie Inc. for custodial services in township buildings. The company was the low bidder for a new three-year pact that will cost taxpayers about $79,000 per year.

• Announced June 1 as a community day with the Wild Things Baseball team.  The event will be sponsored by the Peters Chamber of Commerce. Tickets can be purchased for $10 at  www.peterstownshipchamber.com. Planners are looking into possibly busing residents to the North Franklin baseball field.

• Heard from resident Sam Gregg, who commended the township fire department for its quick response to a barn fire at his home this week.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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