Local Zoning and Natural Gas in Pennsylvania: Court Rules on Act 13

Klingerstown, Pennsylvania. Photo by Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some rights reserved.

In February, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Oil and Gas Act, revising the state’s regulation of oil and gas operations. Among other changes, “Act 13” required uniformity of local ordinances and granted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection the right to use its discretion in granting variances for distance restrictions from water and wetlands. The natural gas industry saw the legislation as a vital antidote to the maze of constantly changing local zoning ordinances in the gas-rich Marcellus region that leads to expensive litigation and increased production and development costs, but not everyone was cheering for Act 13.

Six townships, several individuals, and an environmental group joined Robinson Township in challenging the Act, and the Commonwealth Court issued their decision declaring the sections described above unconstitutional. The Court’s rationale for overturning the uniform zoning provision was that zoning is a police power of local districts and allowing nonconforming use in zoning districts violates substantive due process. In addition, the provision allowing Pennsylvania’s DEP to grant waivers for setback requirements from water and wetlands was declared null because the law offered insufficient guidance to the DEP regarding waiver standards.

Local zoning and setback issues affect the cost, timing, and even feasibility of natural gas production, so the day after the Court’s decision, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced an appeal directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The dissenting opinion, which according to Reed Smith’s Alert  on the ruling could offer suggestions for the appeal, argued that “incompatible uses” can be allowed in a comprehensive zoning framework, and attacked the majority’s attempt to call on substantive due process protections. It noted that most substantive due process cases regarding zoning challenge the ordinances as too restrictive, while the petitioners in this case do the opposite, which is inconsistent with constitutional zoning precedent. Furthermore, the shortcoming the Court sees in DEP guidance regarding setback waivers appears to be something the legislature could rectify easily, according to a Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney memo. Finally, the natural gas industry – barred from intervening in the case at the lower level – will be able to participate in the Supreme Court appeal process by filing amicus briefs.

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