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Middlesex board upholds legality of zoning ordinance to allow gas well drilling

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Middlesex resident Sharon Sheehan joins other residents in protesting action by the Middlesex Zoning Hearing Board that affirmed the township’s zoning ordinance and a drilling permit for a well off Denny Road on Wednesday, May 27, 2015.

An attorney for two environmental groups and four Middlesex residents vowed to appeal a decision Wednesday by the township’s zoning board to uphold the municipality’s zoning ordinance and a drilling permit for a controversial gas well.

“It’s the first inning,” said Jordan Yeager, representing environmental groups the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council and four township residents.

The parties challenged zoning approved by township supervisors in August, which allows for drilling in about 90 percent of Middlesex. They also challenged a drilling permit issued to Rex Energy for a site off Denny Road, owned by Bob and Kim Geyer, who live in adjacent Adams.

Both sides in the controversy said they expect the likely court battle to set a precedent and help define the extent to which municipalities in Pennsylvania are allowed to oversee and regulate hydraulic fracking.

“The overall issue of drilling and fracking, that goes back to the DEP and the EPA, people above and beyond us,” board Chairman George Born said. “But right now, we were just ruling on whether or not the zoning ordinances of Middlesex Township were valid or invalid, and that was our decision.”

Born added that 80 percent of township residents have gas leases.

“At the end of the day, our fiduciary responsibility as zoning board members is to protect our residents. If we as the board felt this particular issue was detrimental to the residents of this township, we would have ruled that way,” Born said.

Middlesex and Rex Energy officials say the ordinance clarified zoning rules and requirements after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down parts of Act 13, a state law that prohibited municipalities from enacting a ban or restrictions on hydraulic fracturing. The state’s highest court ruled that Act 13 removed control from local government.

Butler County has more than 300 active wells, according to DEP records. Several communities have had residents challenge permits to drill.

Board Solicitor Mike Gallagher said that he’ll issue a ruling summary in about a week. Yeager said that once attorneys receive it, they’ll have 30 days to file an appeal.

Under the state’s ethics rules, all three zoning board members initially abstained. Born and Brendan Ryan said they hold oil and gas leases, while Howard Morse said he had a lease. But after the abstention, according to the ethics rules, they could vote because a majority wasn’t available. Middlesex supervisors went through the same process when they approved the zoning ordinance last year.

“I think it’s obvious when you have an economic interest in the outcome, that’s going to raise a reasonable question in people’s minds,” Yeager said.

While nearly half of those attending the hearing applauded the board’s decision upon its adjournment, others said they aren’t pleased.

“It’s too close to the schools,” Sharon Sheehan, who lives off Denny Road, said of the Geyer well site, which is about three-quarters of a mile from Mars Area School District property. “And I don’t see how they could abstain and then vote.”

“There is no compromise when referring to our children’s health and safety. The discussion must continue beyond this decision today,” Michelle Obid, a member of the Mars Parent Group, said in a statement.

Rex Energy will move forward with the Geyer well site, said Michael Endler, Rex’s regional vice president based in Cranberry.

“Rex Energy remains steadfast in our commitment to safety and environmental compliance. As activities restart, we will also resume our previous practice of providing operational updates to the Mars Area School District, local elected officials and emergency management personnel,” Endler said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or [email protected].

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