Communities see Marcellus law as striking at heart of autonomy
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Hundreds of local communities -- many of them without natural gas drilling sites -- have registered support for a lawsuit against the state's Marcellus Shale law.
Regardless of the status of Marcellus Shale drilling in a community, municipal officials tend to agree the state should keep its nose out of local regulations. Even towns, such as Green Tree, that are less touched by natural gas development are uniting to defend their right to local governance.
Green Tree Council has registered support for the legal challenge because Act 13 would strip zoning powers from local officials in favor of uniform statewide rules, manager Dave Montz said.
"Taking our zoning rights away was offensive to us," he said. "It's a fundamental right to allow us to regulate what comes into our community. "If it was a gas station, we probably would have done the same thing [in opposing the law]."
Mr. Montz said the borough's biggest concern is, "'What's next? There's no rhyme or reason as to why [the state took away local powers] other than, apparently, it helps the gas companies."
Although Marcellus Shale drilling is unlikely in Green Tree, a densely built, two-square-mile borough of 4,800 residents, the town is affected by spinoff industries, including tractor-trailer and railroad traffic, and officials had been considering Marcellus regulations before Act 13 was passed.
Municipalities across the state have adopted statements supporting the lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include South Fayette in Allegheny County and Cecil, Peters, Mount Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, representing 1,455 townships, approved resolutions in May opposing any state legislation -- including amendments to the Oil and Gas Act -- that would limit or remove local zoning and land use regulations.
In addition, resolutions and letters of support have been approved by Allegheny County Council, Pittsburgh City Council and at least 62 other municipalities in 16 counties, according to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Bristol, Pa., nonprofit watershed group that is a party to the lawsuit.
Officials in Findlay, home of Pittsburgh International Airport, expressed support for the lawsuit to help defend its ban on drilling in residential areas, township manager Gary Klingman said. Act 13 would force the township to switch course and allow drilling in neighborhoods.
"We went that extra step and said we want to make sure our residential zones are protected," Mr. Klingman said. "We think our ordinance should stand."
Findlay has seen some natural gas drilling interest on its farms and other open tracts, but no wells have been drilled yet. Mr. Klingman said the supervisors are "somewhat pro-drilling" as long as companies follow the township ordinance, which allows drilling in "appropriate locations."
Mr. Klingman said Findlay chose not to join the lawsuit because officials were concerned about potential costs and because they were not interested in fighting aspects of Marcellus Shale development such as environmental regulations.
In Washington County, Brian Coppola, chairman of Robinson supervisors, said he has received hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters supporting the legal challenge. There was enough interest that more parties could have joined the lawsuit, he said, but there were legal and practical reasons against it.
"We could have had 200 [plaintiffs] in there," Mr. Coppola said. "The problem is, you can't have 200 attorneys working on it."
Robinson, a plaintiff, is host to Marcellus development such as gas wells and pipelines. The township attorney, John Smith, is working on the lawsuit pro bono.
When Act 13 was adopted in February, it halted plans to expand drilling regulations in South Strabane, where one gas well has been approved but not built, manager John Stickle said.
Supervisors voted in April to support the legal challenge on the basis that Act 13 was taking away local control.
"We felt that was unfair," Mr. Stickle said. "It should be up to the municipality to regulate that kind of drilling. As local government, we know best what's in the interest of our citizenry. For the state to come along and adopt Act 13, it took away from those powers."
The case against Act 13 was argued in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg in June, and South Fayette officials think a ruling could occur soon.
If Act 13 is upheld, municipalities must revise their Marcellus Shale-related ordinances to comply with state regulations.
Mr. Coppola said whichever party loses the court case is expected to appeal, so "either way, it's going to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court."
Act 13 amends the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, establishing an impact fee on natural gas and pre-empting municipal regulations on gas wells, pipelines, processing facilities, seismic testing and other aspects of Marcellus Shale development.
According to Delaware Riverkeeper, the plaintiffs are challenging the law on the grounds it violates state and national constitutions and "endangers public health, natural resources, communities and the environment."
First Published July 26, 2012 4:54 am