Local group challenges new rules for shale gas industry
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The leader of the organization representing 1,455 municipalities -- 44 percent of the state's population -- said his group is openly supporting a contingent of local officials and individuals who are challenging state lawmakers and officials, including the governor, over zoning provisions in the state's Act 13, the new law that brought sweeping changes to the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry.
"Now that the courts have made their determination, we're standing with that," said David Sanko, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, a group that has been under fire from some local officials, who feel the organizations's position on Act 13 was inconsistent and confusing and remains so.
Though PSATS initially supported the passage of Act 13 as "the best deal" they thought they could get from state lawmakers, the group has always opposed any infringement on local land-use decisions, Mr. Sanko said.
"[Act 13] was a compromise for everybody," he said. "There was something ugly in that bill for everyone."
Mr. Sanko said his group supported a lawsuit against the state from a group of seven municipalities, including Peters, Cecil and Robinson in Washington County and South Fayette in Allegheny County, along with an environmental group and several individuals, challenging parts of Act 13 that would have stripped local governments of their zoning and land-use rights regarding gas well drilling and its related infrastructure, such as pipelines.
Commonwealth Court last month sided with the group of municipal litigants and ruled the zoning portion of Act 13 to be unconstitutional. Other portions of the act, including new environmental standards and the implementation of an impact fee for drillers, have not been challenged and remain in place.
The decision has been appealed to state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case in Pittsburgh in October. Last week, state Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Sam Smith filed a petition to intervene in the appeal and explain why they believe the zoning provisions in Act 13 are constitutional. A similar request to Commonwealth Court by the same lawmakers was denied several months ago.
Recently, PSATS has given more than just lip service to the cause, Mr. Sanko said, filing a brief on behalf of the litigants to Commonwealth Court indicating their support for municipalities to wait for the Supreme Court decision before possibly having to revamp their zoning regulations.
Commonwealth Court again sided with the litigants in that request last week, and now local officials are hoping PSATS will further cement their position by filing another brief in support of their position before Supreme Court.
Mr. Sanko said if a member requests such a brief from PSATS, the group would likely comply.
"I fully expect that a request will come in," Mr. Sanko said.
Despite the recent spirit of cooperation by PSATS, the continued frustration among officials representing three local townships remains clear in a letter they sent to the PSATS executive board last week.
In the letter, Councilman David Ball from Peters and Supervisors Brian Coppola from Robinson and Andy Schrader from Cecil reiterate their concerns and questions about why PSATS didn't work harder to lobby legislators and educate officials about the drawbacks of pre-empting local governments in zoning decisions before the February vote.
"That letter was designed to call them out on a lot of their public statements," Mr. Coppola said this week. "We feel that if they would have opposed it initially, it wouldn't have passed. It's not the best deal we could get."
Mr. Coppola said officials are frustrated also that Gov. Tom Corbett has been using the "wishy-washy" position of PSATS to further his agenda by mentioning the group's support of Act 13 in a press release announcing that the state would be appealing the Commonwealth Court ruling.
"Both the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, which represents 1,455 municipalities, urged passage of the law," Mr. Corbett said in the July 27 press release.
Publications from PSATS have also clouded the issue, local officials said, including a "deliberately misleading" bulletin published by the group in April that Mr. Ball previously complained to PSATS about, and a more recent publication that prompted Peters manager Michael Silvestri to write a letter to Lester Houck, president of PSATS.
"Personally, I believe the tone is very biased towards the industry and minimizes and misstates positions and problems municipalities face," Mr. Silvestri wrote in his Aug. 8 letter. "Specifically, I object to the continued characterization by PSATS that the communities involved in the appeal of Act 13 wish to ban gas drilling."
Mr. Sanko said he realizes local leaders feel strongly about the issue.
"I think this is a very emotional issue and people are very passionate on both sides," he said. "Word choice becomes very important to them. We've tried to stay away from emotions. We're trying to present a fair and balanced perspective of both sides for our members."
Mr. Silvestri said in his letter that he has been unable to discuss the issue with Mr. Sanko, leading him to threaten to rescind the township's membership and the more than $2,000 worth of dues that the it pays each year.
At a recent meeting in Peters, a consensus of council members said it supported Mr. Silvestri's and Mr. Ball's letters.
"This attitude and the continued refusal of the PSATS executive director to speak with a manager who has been a PSATS member of over 30 years ... is part of the reason my council is looking to leave the organization when our renewal occurs in January," Mr. Silvestri said.
Mr. Coppola said Robinson supervisors also have discussed leaving the organization.
"We talked about just leaving PSATS, but the problem is that it's our organization," he said. "We're going to do whatever it takes to straighten them out instead of leaving."
First Published August 30, 2012 4:51 am