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Oil & gas zoning ordinance challenged by environmental groups

Despite the fact that the first working oil well was built in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1858, people rarely associate the state with the pumping of crude oil and natural gas. A land use conflict is now brewing in western Pennsylvania that may refresh people's recollections as two environmental groups are challenging the rezoning decision of a township to significantly increase the percentage of industrial land within its boundaries.

The two groups, Clean Air council and Delaware Riverkeeper Network contend that the ordinance that was passed by Middlesex Township last year violates the two provisions of the state's constitution and a ruling of the Supreme Court. The ordinance increased the amount of land that could be used for industrial development, and specifically, oil and gas drilling, from about 30 percent to about 90 percent.

The two groups and four individual residents of the township are asserting that the ordinance violates the state constitution's environmental rights amendment, which imposes on local governments the duty to maintain environmental quality for its citizens. The plaintiffs are also relying on a decision of the state Supreme Court that invalidated three sections of the 2012 state law that attempted to pre-empt local municipalities' ability to control oil and gas development within their boundaries. The plaintiffs cite this case for the proposition that local municipalities must take into account their residents' health and safety when making industrial zoning decisions.

The first stop for the opponents of the ordinance will be an upcoming zoning board meeting. If the zoning board rejects the arguments, the case will move to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas. Regardless of which side a person may support in such a dispute, seeking the advice of an attorney who specializes in real estate and zoning matters may be helpful. A lawyer who is knowledgeable in these fields can assess the facts, explain the applicable laws (and there are many) and provide a helpful estimate of the chances of achieving a successful outcome.

Source: NPR StateImpact, "Case challenges township's right to change zoning in favor of gas development," Jon Hurdle, May 18, 2015

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