New Castle News

December 28, 2013

Our Opinion: Equality in zoning, Court rules gas drilling must adhere to local rules

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A state Supreme Court ruling related to shale gas operations sends a larger message:

The commonwealth needs to be consistent with the zoning rules it establishes.

Several municipalities filed suit against Act 13, the state law that establishes assorted rules for shale gas drilling operations.

Among other things, that law took away local authority to establish zoning standards for drilling. Essentially, drilling could take place anywhere in a municipality — even a residential area — so long as certain distance rules were obeyed.

But by a 4-2 vote, the Supreme Court said Act 13 went too far in denying local government the opportunity to set rules for drilling in terms of land use and zoning. This means that every municipality in the commonwealth with a zoning ordinance can now establish its own standards and prohibitions for drilling.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing undoubtedly depends upon one’s point of view. But basically, we believe local governments ought to be able to set their own zoning standards.

And that’s because they are allowed to do so where other types of business activities are concerned. We have no doubt that drillers may now face more restrictions and confusion in the commonwealth if new zoning roadblocks are created. But that’s the way things work in Pennsylvania with its strong nod to local control.

Granted, all powers vested to local governments come via authority of the Legislature. So one could argue a state law has the ability to cancel out zoning rules.

But the court noted that the whole purpose of zoning is to create predictability and consistency in land use and property values. Act 13’s language tossed that concept aside for a system that made things easier for drillers.

So what happens now? The results will be a mixed bag, and a muddled one in many parts of Pennsylvania. Some municipalities will opt for tough restrictions on drilling, responding to public demands. Elsewhere, other local officials will make few changes.

Obviously, there are concerns about shale gas drilling, and some people are strongly opposed to it. On the other hand, property owners who sign leases will presumably urge their local officials to avoid rules that would deter drillers.

Meanwhile, we may see the Legislature attempt to set new statewide standards that would meet with the court’s approval. But that presumably would take some time, and municipalities will be left to their own devices for a while.

Regardless, the Legislature has been told it can’t pick and choose which industries are allowed to bypass local zoning. The playing field has been leveled.