State Supreme Court justices listened to nearly two hours of arguments in Pittsburgh this morning over whether aspects of the state's new Marcellus Shale drilling law take too much power away from local governments.
State attorneys were contesting the Commonwealth Court's July decision to overturn a portion of the law that limited what local zoning rules can and cannot address regarding drilling activity.
A majority panel of that court sided with a set of municipal officials, who argued that the new law was unconstitutional because it would require them to allow well pads and compressor stations in areas where the activity would otherwise be prohibited by their local development plans.
At this morning's hearing, a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred activists, attorneys, local officials and other observers filled the courtroom in the City-County Building, downtown.
A pile of anti-drilling signs was left in the hallway during the proceeding, but sections of the crowd still let their view of the law be heard at several points, eventually drawing a reprimand from Chief Justice Ron Castille.
There was laughter when Matt Haverstick, a Philadelphia attorney representing the state Public Utility Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection, responded to a question on whether zoning is intended to maintain similar uses in an area by stating that it is one -- but not the only -- purpose of zoning.
Justice Castille's warning followed a round of applause after Justice Seamus McCaffery commented that under the law, residential communities "can now be turned into industrial areas."
Mr. Haverstick defended the law, repeating prior arguments that all municipal zoning rights are given by state government and those rights can be changed at any time by the General Assembly. He said there's no constitutional protection against having some incompatible uses in a particular zoning district, arguing that both property owners and their neighbors have protected rights.
"All other things being equal, owners of property should be free to use their property the way they want to," Mr. Haverstick said.
Attorneys for the mostly southwestern towns involved in the challenge -- South Fayette in Allegheny County and Cecil, Mount Pleasant, Robinson and Peters in Washington County -- argued that the law approved in February places offering a predictable regulatory environment to gas drillers above ensuring residents know what type of development might occur in their neighborhoods.
Attorney John Smith said state officials also must weigh the same criteria that towns do in determining zoning: whether it protects the health, safety and welfare of residents.
"That analysis was not undertaken by the General Assembly because the General Assembly didn't understand it was zoning or didn't care," Mr. Smith said.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.