A Western Pennsylvania common pleas court has again dismissed a landowner lawsuit filed against two environmental organizations and local residents for their efforts to oppose oil and gas development.

The Butler County Common Pleas Court ruled that the drilling opponents and defendants in the case, which included the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council, were engaging in constitutionally protected activity. Landowners that brought the suit had alleged that the defendants interfered with their contractual rights, which caused financial hardship by delaying Rex Energy Corp.'s plans to drill in Middlesex Township.

The environmental groups and concerned citizens had filed an appeal against the Middlesex zoning board for modifying an ordinance that allows drilling in most of the township (see Shale DailyNov. 12, 2014Oct. 13, 2014. They have been particularly concerned about Rex's plans to drill shale wells less than a mile from a school in the area where thousands of students attend.

The defendants’ attorney argued that the landowners' complaint was a "SLAPP" action, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation, that violated their constitutional rights. Last September, another judge in the same court dismissed a similar lawsuit, ruling that the landowners failed to provide facts for their argument (see Shale DailySept. 28, 2015). That case, however, allowed the lawsuit to be refiled.

After months of deliberation and public hearings, the Middlesex zoning board rejected the environmental group's appeal. Rex, which has not been involved in the legal proceedings, had said operations at the site would resume. The company plans to move forward with development this summer.

More than a dozen landowners, including a real estate developer, filed the suit. They also have leases with Range Resources Corp.