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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Range Resources Challenges South Fayette's Drilling Law

- Range Resources Challenges South Fayette's Drilling Law

Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
by Mike Wereschagin, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A natural gas company has asked South Fayette's zoning board to overturn a 2010 law it says enacts a de facto ban on drilling in the township.

Range Resources petitioned the board on Tuesday, saying the restrictions strip the company's right to drill on 4,000 acres it has leased in the township. South Fayette's ordinance, enacted on Nov. 15, bans drilling within certain distances of homes, schools, streams, ponds, gas stations, mobile home parks, day cares, hospitals and nursing homes. The distances range from 300 feet to 2,500 feet.

Add each restriction together -- plus the requirement that the land on which drilling takes place be at least 10 acres -- and it covers the town's entire land mass, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said.

"You can't (drill in South Fayette). It can't be done," Pitzarella said.

One of the law's chief supporters said the legislation leaves land open to drilling -- just not some of the land Range has leased.

"Their problem is they bought their way into some land that's right in the middle of the community," said Keith McDonough, head of the anti-drilling group Friends of South Fayette. McDonough said he wanted to ban drilling in the town, but state law forbids it. "The entire western border (of South Fayette) that borders Cecil Township, which is heavily drilled, is all permissible. I wish that weren't the case, to be honest with you, but it is."

The conflict arises as municipalities around the state are crafting their own drilling regulations -- something Range worries will lead to an unpredictable and costly patchwork of restrictions on its business. There are 2,565 municipalities in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors in December published a model zoning ordinance for towns to use, although it doesn't recommend the size of buffer zones.

Just across the state line, a Morgantown judge struck down that city's drilling ban on Friday, saying it illegally pre-empted state law. Range says in its complaint to the South Fayette zoning board that Pennsylvania law also doesn't allow towns to ban drilling.

But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has allowed municipalities to restrict drilling to certain areas by using zoning ordinances, said Myron Arnowitt, state director of environmental group Clean Water Action.

Arnowitt called South Fayette's ordinance "one of the best ... in the region." He said he wasn't sure whether it was legal to use zoning rules to ban drilling, and said he didn't know whether South Fayette's law amounts to such a de facto ban.

According to one South Fayette commissioner, "it's arguable" that it does.

"By limiting drilling to a very limited amount of zones, as South Fayette does, it does severely impact drilling operations," said Sue Caffrey. She said the ordinance was an emotional reaction to widespread drilling opposition in the town. Rather than solving difficult problems about how to safely regulate drilling, she said, "it kind of skirts that issue through zoning."

"I voted for it, and it is the one vote in my 12 years I regret making," Caffrey said.

The zoning board operates independently of the five-member board of commissioners. Whichever side the zoning board takes on Range's petition, the decision could wind up in the Court of Common Pleas.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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