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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Again Finds NatGas Drilling Compatible with Residential Zones

A Pennsylvania appellate court once again has affirmed a key 2015 decision that found natural gas drilling is compatible with residential/agricultural (RA) zoning districts, rejecting a challenge from residents and environmental groups that argued the areas are not suitable for such development.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in its ruling last week disagreed with all of the objections raised in an appeal by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Clean Air Council and some Middlesex Township residents opposed to Rex Energy Corp.'s drilling operations that were less than a mile from a school in Butler County. The plaintiffs challenged the township's zoning board for modifying an ordinance that allows oil and gas companies to drill in RA zones. The Butler County Court of Common Pleas dismissed the case in 2015, saying the township "clearly and thoroughly balanced the considerations of the variously zoned districts," and found "no error of law or abuse of discretion" in the township's decision to uphold its ordinance.

The Commonwealth Court agreed, finding that natural gas development is not an incompatible industrial use in RA zones. The court also said the township's ordinance meets the provisions of Article I, Section 27 of the state constitution, an environmental rights amendment, by requiring certain safeguards. And among other things, the court found the board did not exclude or reject evidence during deliberations and public hearings about the ordinance.

Several townships across the state have faced similar challenges to drilling permits issued in RA zones. In most of the cases, opponents have claimed that those zones are not suitable for unconventional drilling well sites. Challengers have claimed such development threatens public safety and the legal rights afforded to residents under the state’s environmental amendment.

Producers have so far been successful in the proceedings. In its opinion, the Commonwealth Court cited one of its earlier decisions in a case that pitted Inflection Energy LLC against homeowners in the northeastern part of the state. In that case, the court said most of the state is zoned for RA use, ruling oil and gas wells are compatible with such zones, similar to public service facilities such as power plants, parking garages or offices.

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