PA Supreme Court Says Local Governments Must Amend Zoning Ordinances To Specifically Allow For Drilling
The PA Supreme Court Friday issued an opinion that upholds a property owner’s challenge to a decision by the Fairfield Township Board Of Supervisors in Lycoming County to allow natural gas drilling even when the local zoning ordinance was found to not specifically authorize it.
The 4-3 decision involved a 2014 case-- Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township-- where residents challenged the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells in a residential district.
The Court’s opinion said in part, “Because the Ordinance does not expressly authorize a gas wells use in any of the Township’s three zoning districts, such a use cannot enjoy any presumption of being “similar to” uses that are permitted in those districts, and section 12.18 clearly places the burden of proof with respect to similarity of use on the applicant.
“The statutory language of section 12.18 neither states nor suggests that the issuance of prior site-specific conditional use permits under that section of the Ordinance relieves an applicant of its obligation to satisfy its burden of proof with respect to section 12.18 in its entirety.
“In so ruling, this decision should not be misconstrued as an indication that oil and gas development is never permitted in residential/agricultural districts, or that it is fundamentally incompatible with residential or agricultural uses.
“As the Dissent fairly acknowledges, in Robinson I a plurality of this Court recognized that the protection of environmental values is a “quintessential local issue that must be tailored to local conditions.”
“To this end, the Municipalities Planning Code permits the governing body of a municipality to amend its zoning ordinances to permit oil and gas development in any or all of its zoning districts.
“The governing body must, however, actually amend its zoning ordinances to permit drilling in designated areas, setting forth whatever limitations and conditions it decides are appropriate for the protection of its citizenry.
“What a governing body may not do, however, and what the Fairfield Township Board of Supervisors did in this case, is to permit oil and gas development in residential/agricultural districts without first enacting the necessary amendments, based upon a clearly inadequate evidentiary record and no meaningful interpretative analysis of the language of its existing zoning laws.”
Click Here for a copy of the opinion.
[Posted: June 1, 2018]
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