Natural gas drilling ban remains on Peters ballot
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Peters officials do not plan to challenge a judge's decision to allow a controversial referendum question on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election that, if passed, would prohibit new natural gas extraction and likely spur lawsuits over access to Marcellus Shale deposits.
"I don't think we're planning to appeal," manager Michael Silvestri said Tuesday, although he added that the decision was not final.
Washington County Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky Monday dismissed an attempt by the township to block the referendum. In a brief order, the judge wrote that he could not act before the election because there was no "immediate harm caused by the presence of the measure on the ballot."
Township solicitor William Johnson had argued that the referendum would make illegal changes to Peters' home rule charter.
"Obviously the effect is to keep it on the ballot and ... I understand his reading of it, but we just have to disagree with it," Mr. Johnson said. "He's saying there's no harm by the appearance of the question on the ballot, but we think there is."
Mr. Johnson said he believes the specter of the referendum question is having a "chilling effect" on negotiations between drilling companies and people trying to lease their Marcellus Shale rights.
On the other side of the debate is the grass-roots group Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness and its attorneys, Healey & Hornack, University of Pittsburgh law professor Jules Lobel and Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
"I'm grateful that the judge accepted our arguments and is going to let the people's will decide on this referendum," Mr. Lobel said.
In August, council voted 5-0 for a new ordinance that restricted Marcellus Shale drilling and other mineral extraction activities to a limited number of sites by imposing certain criteria.
Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness favors a total drilling ban, but Mr. Johnson and council have warned that such a prohibition would likely not withstand a legal challenge.
With the legal challenge to the referendum apparently settled, the county elections board is scheduled to meet this afternoon to review the language that will come before voters.
Peters has about 21,000 residents; turnout for the upcoming election is expected to be between 6,000 and 7,000, said Larry Spahr, director of the county's voter registration and election office.
First Published October 5, 2011 12:00 am