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Pennsylvania Court Again Rejects Challenge to Oil/Gas Drilling in Residential Zones

Another Pennsylvania judge has upheld a local zoning ordinance that allows natural gas drilling in residential/agricultural districts, rejecting a challenge from residents and environmental groups that argued the areas are not suitable for such development.

Since last year, two organizations from the other side of the state -- the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council -- had joined with some Middlesex Township residents to oppose Rex Energy Corp.'s plans to drill less than a mile from the local school district's property (see Shale DailySept. 14, 2014). They had filed a challenge against the township's zoning board for modifying an ordinance that allows oil and gas companies to drill in residential-agricultural zones (see Shale DailyNov. 12, 2014). That challenge came after staunch opposition from a local parents group that was formed to research horizontal hydraulic fracturing and resist Rex's plans for development near the school.

But in May, after months of deliberation and public hearings, the zoning board ruled against the challenge and upheld its ordinance, which allowed drilling to move forward until the environmental groups and three residents filed an appeal in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas (see Shale DailyMay 29). Last week, the judge dismissed the appeal, saying the township "clearly and thoroughly balanced the considerations of the variously zoned districts," and added that he found "no error of law or abuse of discretion" in the township's decision to uphold its ordinance.

More than 800 unconventional drilling permits have been issued in Butler County since 2005 -- some near schools -- while more than 20 of those have been issued in Middlesex Township. Rex's core acreage is located in the area. Like much of Pennsylvania, the county and the township is zoned for residential-agricultural use, meaning most of it could potentially be developed for oil and gas.

In his decision, the judge noted that it's not the court's duty to "supplant the ideas of local government agencies." Several townships across the state are facing similar challenges to drilling permits issued under local residential-agricultural zoning ordinances (see Shale DailyDec. 1, 2014). In most of the cases, opponents are claiming that those zones are not suitable for unconventional well sites. Challengers are claiming that natural gas development in the areas threatens public safety and the legal rights afforded to residents under an environmental amendment included in the state's constitution.

But along with last week's ruling in Butler County, a state appellate court recently upheld a conditional use permit issued by a township in Lycoming County for drilling in a residential area (see Shale DailySept. 15). The court found that like most of the state, the majority of that township is zoned for residential use. The appellate court said that oil and gas wells are compatible with residential zoning, similar to public service facilities such as power plants, parking garages or offices.

In a separate case earlier this month, a lower court in Lycoming County ordered a drilling opponent to post a nearly $6 million bond to proceed with an appeal against an operator's development plans in a residential-agricultural zone, calling the challenge "frivolous" (see Shale DailyNov. 20).

Rex Energy said in a statement that it would recommence operations in Middlesex. The Butler County court also lifted a stay that had halted its operations after opponents filed their appeal. The company remains committed to maintaining an "open dialogue" with the school board and local stakeholders "as we restart operations at this well site," Rex spokesman Patrick Creighton said.

Attorneys for the environmental groups said they plan to file an appeal to the common pleas court's decision.

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