Upper Burrell zoning case involving oil, gas drilling could be held for Pa. high court ruling
A challenge to Upper Burrell’s zoning ordinance allowing gas and oil drilling in agriculturally zoned areas is moving to Westmoreland County Court.
Township supervisors learned Wednesday night that an order was issued by Westmoreland County President Judge Richard McCormick that a review of the zoning ordinance regarding agricultural districts be done in county court.
Steve Yakopec, the Upper Burrell solicitor who had drafted the ordinance, said ordinarily the ordinance appeal would be reviewed by the township’s Zoning Hearing Board.
The ordinance’s appeal was filed by township resident Patricia Troiano. She lives adjacent to the property between Bethesda Drive and Delberta Road where drilling company Huntley & Huntley plans to build a drilling pad for four natural gas wells.
In her appeal, Troiano claims that the ordinance violates the environmental rights clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution and would devalue her property.
She argues that agricultural-residential districts were set up to provide for agricultural activity and single-family residential housing and don’t allow for oil and gas drilling.
Neither Troiano nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
According to Yakopec, the order came about after the five attorneys involved — representing Troiano, the township, the zoning hearing board and Huntley & Huntley — could not coordinate dates for what was expected to be a series of zoning hearings.
Instead, Yakopec said, the attorneys agreed to a “team denial” of Trioano’s appeal, a move designed to move it directly into court.
“It was also an opportunity to save tens of thousands of dollars by moving it to the Court of Common Pleas,” Yakopec said.
He said that with a series of hearings expected at the local level, it would mean a prolonged case involving more attorneys’ fees and costs for repeatedly calling in expert witnesses and a court stenographer.
Now, the disposition of the case rests with McCormick.
“He could say, ‘I’m going to hear the case,’ or “I’m going to appoint a hearing officer,’ ” Yakopec said.
If he opts for the latter, McCormick would then decide whether to accept or reject the hearing officer’s conclusions and decision.
There is another option for McCormick, according to Yakopec. He said that would be to hold Troiano’s case in abeyance, basically putting it on hold, until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules on two similar cases pending before it.
Yakopec said that by doing that, McCormick could draw some guidance from the Supreme Court’s decisions.
In the meantime, he said, it would also act as a sort of injunction because Huntley & Huntley would not be permitted to proceed until the Supreme Court makes its ruling.
Tom Yerace is a freelance writer.