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Friday, September 30, 2011

Peters Township PA Gets "Fracked" by Their Council



Judge to rule on Peters drilling referendum
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
A Washington County judge has set a Sept. 28 hearing for arguments over whether to block a voter referendum on natural gas drilling in Peters.
At a brief hearing this morning, Judge Paul Pozonsky said he will try to make a decision about a petition from Peters Solicitor William Johnson before the first week in October, when absentee ballots for the general election are to be printed and mailed.
Mr. Johnson, at the behest of Peters council, is trying to prevent the referendum from making it onto the Nov. 8 ballot, saying he believes it to be "patently illegal."
"The township has spent the past year and a half attempting to formulate a defendable zoning ordinance" regarding Marcellus Shale drilling, Mr. Johnson told the judge.


» A website for ongoing coverage, resources, comments and more.


The referendum asks Peters voters whether to ban gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- of the Marcellus Shale, and other natural gas extraction activities. If approved, it would override an ordinance passed by council last month.
Members of the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness group, which last month presented a petition with 2,422 signatures of residents to the county elections office to get the referendum included on the ballot, said they want voters to decide the issue.
"We think it's important to the citizens and voters of Peters Township," said Cathy Eddy, one of the group's members.
Ms. Eddy said PTMSA plans to file a brief defending the referendum.
"We're in the legislative process; we're trying to change the law," she said. "Our home rule charter gives us that right."
Specifically, the referendum would ask voters in the county's largest municipality to establish a "bill of rights" that would amend the home rule charter and ban drilling.
If it's approved by voters, the referendum would make the township's position "untenable" and "indefensible" for a number of reasons, Mr. Johnson said, including that it would violate the state's Oil & Gas Act, which governs gas well drilling regulations and pre-empts local governments from regulating most aspects of gas drilling.
Peters Council voted unanimously last night to mount a legal challenge to the referendum, saying they feared it would expose taxpayers to "tens of millions of dollars" in liability from drilling companies and property owners with leases.
The county elections office will not fight the issue either way, because paperwork for the referendum appears to have been filed properly, said county Solicitor Mary Lynn Drewitz.
"We're neutral," said Ms. Drewitz.
The judge ordered all parties to submit briefs to his office by Sept. 21.
Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


Peters council heads to court to block shale referendum
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
A lawyer representing Peters council is expected to be in Washington County court this morning in an attempt to block a voter referendum on whether to ban natural gas drilling.
"In my opinion, it's patently illegal," said solicitor William Johnson.
The referendum, which is slated to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, asks Peters voters whether to ban gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- of the Marcellus Shale, and other natural gas extraction activities.
Council members Monday night voted unanimously to mount a legal challenge to the referendum, organized by members of the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness group, which last month presented a petition with 2,422 signatures of residents to the county elections office to get the referendum included on the ballot.

» A website for ongoing coverage, resources, comments and more.

Specifically, the referendum would ask voters in the county's largest municipality to establish a "bill of rights" that would amend the home rule charter and override a drilling ordinance passed by council last month.
That ordinance, passed after months of debate and public hearings, limits Marcellus Shale gas drill sites - and any other mineral extraction activities - as a conditional use in a specially designed overlay district.
Drilling would be limited to parcels of at least 40 acres along main roads, and companies would be required to test water and soil before drilling and after hydraulic fracturing.
But members of PTMSA had pressed council to either ban drilling or confine it to industrial areas, and members continued protesting the issue Monday night, wearing red-and-black anti-fracking T-shirts and carrying signs urging council to let the voters decide the issue. Members held up their signs during the nearly two hours that council debated whether to challenge the referendum.
"If you want to commit political suicide, go ahead," said Peters resident Ann Shaner, a member of PTMSA.
Ms. Shaner said residents who signed the petition felt it was "the fair and honest thing to do; to give the people the right to vote."
"This is an anathema, that we in a residential community have to even discuss this," said resident Susan Derko. "It's hard to even get your head around."
But council members said they were concerned that not challenging the referendum would place the township on the hook for perhaps "tens of millions of dollars in liability" from drilling companies and property owners who signed leases.
Mr. Johnson said that if the referendum passes, it would immediately invalidate council's ordinance and make the township's position "untenable" and "indefensible" for a number of reasons, including that it would violate the state's Oil & Gas Act, which governs gas well drilling regulations and preempts local governments from regulating most aspects of gas drilling.
"I just don't think it's prudent to put ourselves in this position right now," he said.
Several council members said they would have preferred to ban gas drilling, but said it isn't a legal option.
Council said it wants the courts to decide the issue.
"It's not illegal until the court says it's illegal," council President Robert Atkison said of the referendum. "If it's legal, it will be on the ballot."
Mr. Johnson, along with representatives from PTMSA and the county elections office, are expected to appear before Judge Paul Pozonsky at 9:15 a.m. today.
Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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