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Upper Burrell Zoning Hearing Board reluctantly approves more oil wells

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 1:38 a.m.

The Upper Burrell Zoning Hearing Board on Thursday granted Penneco permission to drill two oil wells off Hartge Road, a decision that upset several residents.

Township Zoning Officer Scott Chermak initially denied Delmont-based Penneco's request because the township's most recent ordinance does not permit drilling on R-1 residential properties.

However, Penneco appealed Chermak's decision. It argued in November that the new permits were connected to previous drilling activity on the property dating back to 1991, meaning the new wells should be grandfathered under previous rules.

Also, Penneco argued the township's prohibition on residential drilling was overruled by Act 13, the year-old state law that addresses unconventional drilling.

The three-member zoning hearing board, on the advice of Solicitor Harlan Stone, disagreed with Penneco's Act 13 argument, but agreed that drilling was a pre-existing, non-conforming use of the Hartge property.

The latter ruling reverses Chermak's decision and grants Penneco permission to drill.

Drilled before ruling

But residents noted the board's decision was a moot point because Penneco had already drilled the wells.

It was not immediately known why the company began drilling before its appeal was granted.

No one from Penneco was present for Thursday's decision, and no one from the company could be reached for comment late Thursday.

Precedent feared

Residents also feared the board's decision set a precedent that would undermine the township's ordinance that intended to limit drilling in residential areas.

Pointing out that the township has many existing conventional gas wells, residents questioned why they bothered with the new ordinance if all those properties would be grandfathered under old laws.

Stone said they would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

In the Hartge case, Stone said the fact that the new wells will be drilled on the same well pad using the same access road, and that property owner William Herman testified his intention for the former farm property was primarily gas and oil exploration, weighed in Penneco's favor.

But residents said the new wells were not drilled on the same pad. Stone said no one testified to that in the November hearing.

Angelcrest Drive resident Ron Slabe said the new oil wells were drilled using more invasive Marcellus shale natural gas-drilling technology, which uses horizontal well shafts and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Slabe said Penneco's recent operations should not count as a continuance of a previous project due to those differences.

Baxter Drive resident Leon Yurkin also questioned where township officials draw the line at what is part of a pre-existing project and what is new. He noted that if he tried to build onto an existing house, he couldn't say it was part of the original house construction.

Hillview Drive residents, including Victor Barone, Elsie Deem, Rose Dombroski, Frank Wiles and Linda Kephart, said their homes neighbor the Penneco wells. They complained of around-the-clock noise, light pollution and vibrations from the operations, as well as lack of notification about what was going on.

Barone acknowledged they've likely lost the fight against the current wells. But he wants to know what they can do in the future.

“This is a moot point for everybody,” he said. “We want to know what we can do in the future. There's still a lot of property around me that's ripe for drilling.”

Residents indicated they planned to attend Monday's supervisors meeting to address their concerns about how the Penneco situation was handled.

Stone noted the zoning hearing board's decision can be appealed in county court.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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