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Upper Burrell eyes options to ease drilling concerns

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

Upper Burrell supervisors are evaluating possible steps to address residents' concerns about gas and oil drilling in the township.

Since the township lost three zoning cases to Penneco, including one on Hartge Road in February, several residents have demanded that township officials take action to prevent drilling from occurring in residential areas.

Angelcrest Drive resident Ron Slabe suggested hiring a legal consultant who specializes in gas and oil law to assist township Solicitor Steve Yakopec.

Slabe said he was not criticizing Yakopec's performance, but rather acknowledging the uphill battle a small township has against energy companies that often have large legal teams.

“The deck is stacked against us and against you,” Slabe told Yakopec.

“I believe I know what I'm doing,” Yakopec said. “I've been a solicitor since 1985.

“If I need help, I'll put my hand up.”

Resident Tom Baker, a former township supervisor who works for Penneco, objected: “Steve is more than qualified. We've spent too much money on this already.”

Supervisors Chairman Ross Walker said he's not opposed to the idea. He noted that the township has been advised by Slabe's suggested consultant, attorney John M. Smith, in the past.

However, Walker said, a more pressing issue is fixing errors that were made in the township's drilling ordinance when the laws were codified, or organized and bound by a publisher.

When supervisors updated their drilling ordinance in 2011, they prohibited drilling in residential zones.

However, when the ordinances were codified, the wording of the drilling ordinance was inadvertently changed to indicate drilling is permitted in residential zones.

Supervisors plan to have a work session soon to make a list of any errors made during the publishing process and determine how they can be fixed. Yakopec said the publisher might be able to reprint specific pages to correct the errors.

Until those errors are corrected, Yakopec said, the codified version is the legal version of the ordinances.

He said no drilling permits have been issued in residential zones as a result of the errors.

He said the most recent Penneco case on Hartge Road was a matter of the zoning hearing board determining that drilling was a pre-existing, nonconforming legal use at that site.

Because wells had been drilled on the property since the early 1990s when there were no drilling prohibitions in residential zones, the new wells were “grandfathered” as part of an ongoing use.

Regardless of any new laws the supervisors may pass, Yakopec said, the township likely will face that situation again because there are many older, conventional wells in Upper Burrell.

“I can't tell you that will always happen,” Yakopec said. “It depends on the facts (of each case).”

Residents were critical of the fact that Yakopec did not seek a court injunction to stop Penneco from drilling on Hartge Road before the zoning hearing board ruled and before a township permit was issued. A Penneco representative previously said the company's attorneys felt the township improperly withheld the permit and that they had a strong legal case to proceed.

Yakopec said he reviewed the situation and felt an injunction would not be granted. Furthermore, he said, the township would have risked sanctions if a judge deemed Yakopec improperly asked for an injunction.

Yakopec said the township can pursue fining Penneco $500 for failing to obtain a zoning certificate before beginning work.

Baker said he's tired of what he believes is a minority of township residents swaying supervisors to do battle with the drilling industry.

“These five people don't represent the whole community,” he said. “They are attacking a mainstay in the community.”

Baker said environmentalists have painted a bleak picture of potential hazards from drilling, but “the only thing that's happened is prosperity.”

Slabe said he's not trying to stop drilling; he just wants to ensure the industry is regulated and follows the rules.

Rose Ann Dombroski, a Hillview Drive resident upset by the Hartge Road project, said she doesn't object to drilling but doesn't think companies should be able to operate at night.

“I know I need gas. I know I need electricity,” Dombroski said. “I don't need them to drill overnight, every night, for six weeks straight.

“It's not like I'm asking them for the moon,” she said. “I'm asking for a little peace and quiet.”

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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