Washington County gas drilling draws crowd in Robinson

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A proposed overhaul of zoning and gas drilling rules in Robinson, Washington County, drew support and opposition during a public hearing Monday.

About 90 people attended the meeting at Fort Cherry High School, with 21 residents and business owners voicing views on proposed changes, including loosened rules for Marcellus Shale development.

Resident Carl Zeno was against the drilling proposal because of traffic and noise concerns. “You have the obligation to protect us,” he said.

David Zurn, a commercial property owner, said the rules would promote investment and growth in the township. “The people that have worked their land, if they want to drill a well on their land, they should be allowed,” he said.

Business owner Dale Risker said the township should seek balance in regulating the gas industry. “We don’t want to let the pendulum swing too far to the right that we make regulations that restrict industry from coming into our area, but we also don’t want to swing it too far to the left,” he said.

Board chairman Rodger Kendall, who is a leaseholder with driller Range Resources, proposed major changes to the township’s zoning and drilling regulations after he and Vice Chairman Stephen Duran took office in January.

Zoning rules that had been adopted in December “restricted the [oil and gas] industry very much,” Mr. Kendall said Monday.

The three-member board of supervisors must vote on the proposed zoning amendments within 45 days.

Mr. Kendall said the vote will occur after the township receives an opinion from the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission on the appropriateness of his voting on drilling issues.

Supervisor Mark Brositz said that while some agriculture-related changes to the zoning law might have merit, he does not support “a wholesale rezoning of the township."

“The changes they’re going to do to the oil and gas, I feel it’s a free-for-all,” Mr. Brositz said in a conversation after the hearing. “So it’s an all-or-nothing [vote] right now.”

The proposal would alter the zoning ordinance and map approved in December by Mr. Brositz and former supervisors Brian Coppola and Terrence Love.

A May letter from the five-member township planning commission lists concerns about the proposed zoning amendments, including lack of control over natural gas development, instances of spot zoning, possible noncompliance with state law and inconsistencies with the comprehensive plan that “could create controversy and potential litigation issues.”

The planning commission—comprised of chairman Anthony Orlandini, vice chairman Neal Matchett, David Barkhurst, Sandy Ulrich and Mr. Love—points to a concern that some gas drilling applications would be approved as a permitted use rather than a conditional use.

“With the diverse population of rural and residential, different rules may need to be applied depending on location and proximity to residential areas,” the letter says. “The proposed ordinance changes do not allow for specific ‘conditions’ to be applied in different situations.”

Under the proposal, the township may approve natural gas well development in two ways.

Township staff may review and OK gas well development as a permitted use in areas zoned for industry, agriculture, rural residences and Southern Beltway-related Interchange Business Development.

Gas wells in commercial, special conservation, single-family residential and general residential zones must go through a more rigorous conditional use process, including public input, review by the planning commission and the possibility of additional restrictions or safeguards being required by the supervisors.

Both permitted and conditional uses would have to follow a similar, baseline set of procedures and rules, such as submitting development plans, preparing a safety plan, bonding roads and complying with noise, light, fence and dust control requirements.

“If you have good, solid administrative determinants, you can have industry as a permitted use,” said resident Mark Kramer, a former supervisor.

His wife, Judy Kramer, a former planning commission member, urged the supervisors to consider all applications as a conditional use.

“The conditional use format, as opposed to the permitted use application, affords the local government a great deal of power,” she said. “It also affords the supervisors and the people of the township ownership of their community.”

Some speakers said Robinson’s proposed drilling rules resemble the parts of Act 13—the state drilling law—that the state Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional last year.

“If the zoning ordinance as currently proposed is passed, it will not pass constitutional muster … [and] will inevitably result in legal challenges against the township,” said Michael Oliverio, an attorney representing former supervisor Mr. Coppola and his wife, Susan.

Robinson had been a plaintiff in a multi-party challenge of Act 13, but supervisors Mr. Kendall and Mr. Duran voted to withdraw from the lawsuit soon after taking office.

Andrea Iglar, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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