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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision limits gas drillers from developing residential areas

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This April 1, 2016, photo shows a private home, foreground, with a shale gas drilling rig in the background, in Washington, Pa.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a natural gas well company cannot drill on a residential-agricultural district in Lycoming County.

The 4-3 ruling involves a 2014 case in which property owners Brian and Dawn Gorsline and other groups appealed a decision by Fairfield Township supervisors to allow the drilling of a natural gas well by Denver-based Inflection Energy LLC.

The company wanted to drill on a 59-acre property in Montoursville, located in the northeastern part of the state, near property owned by the Gorslines and others. Fairfield’s zoning law did not specifically permit drilling but approved Inflection’s application under a conditional-use permit.

The township’s decision to allow the drilling was supported by a Commonwealth Court ruling in September 2015 because a judge said the operation was similar to a public service facility.

That ruling prompted an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Arguments were heard in March.

The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Christine Donohue, places limits on local governments when they are confronted with a decision on where shale gas developers may drill.

“What a governing body may not do… is to permit oil and gas development in residential/agricultural districts without first enacting the necessary amendments,” Donohue wrote.

A person who answered the phone at Inflection Energy LLC declined said no one was available to comment.

George Jugovic of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, who represented the landowners, said Friday that means Fairfield, and other townships across Pennsylvania, will need to update their zoning ordinances.

“The courts said this is an industrial land use,” he said. “So there’s no broad ruling where townships can’t allow shale gas development. This gives townships the opportunity to grapple that issue… with limitations.”

A dissenting opinion, written by Associate Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, said the majority ruling was too restrictive on local governments.

“The board is authorized to consider all the possible uses allowed in the district either as permitted uses or conditional uses,” Dougherty wrote.

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