Murrysville Council wants referendum vote on park drilling
By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
The fate of Marcellus shale drilling under Murrysville Community Park will be in the voters' hands this fall.
On Wednesday, Murrysville Council discussed a proposed lease for the oil and gas rights at the park. However, officials plan to ask residents to ultimately make the decision. Council will ask residents to petition for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot that would have voters decide if the municipality should sell the gas rights to the highest bidder.
Officials from Huntley and Huntley, a Monroeville-based drilling company, have approached municipal leaders about leasing the gas rights under the 262-acre park but have not made a formal offer, said Mike Hillebrand, vice president and chief operating officer at Huntley.
“We've been in discussions for several years to determine interest,” Hillebrand said. “We've thrown some concepts around, for economics, to see if it's even advancable.”
Huntley has proposed paying Murrysville $585,000 for the gas rights, Morrison said. The municipality would receive 12.5 percent of any profit made on gas extracted from under the park.
That's not a deal Morrison would recommend.
“Those are both very low,” Morrison said. “(It was) a standard lease in a form that would never be accepted.”
Hillebrand said his company welcomes community input regarding the future of shale-drilling in the municipality.
“We invite that debate and the input of the community,” Hillebrand said. “I live in Murrysville. My kids go to school there and play soccer at the Murrysville Community Park. This isn't just a Huntley opinion — all of the community needs to chime in for the community park.”
Murrysville chief administrator Jim Morrison said he hopes residents will get involved.
“Council feels the input of the residents of the community is paramount in helping guide an appropriate course of action on this very important issue,” Morrison wrote in an email.
The park, located along Wiestertown Road, is one of two parks included in the municipal drilling district. No shale-gas drilling has occurred in the municipality.
According to council documents, members of a residents committee would work to obtain the signatures from at least 20 percent of the 4,137 residents who voted in the last election so that a referendum could be placed on the November general-election ballot. The group also would help educate other residents on the positives and negatives of leasing the gas rights and develop the yes/no question that will ultimately decide whether council will allow competitive bidding for the rights.
Jim Montini, director of the Westmoreland County Bureau of Elections, said most requirements for the referendum are set by Murrysville's home-rule charter.
Officials will begin developing an ordinance that would allow the municipality to solicit bids for the park's oil and gas rights. That ordinance would be voted on by mid-April, Morrison said. However, bids would not be accepted until after the November election.
Any resident's group formed can't begin soliciting petition signatures until mid-April, Morrison said.
State regulations prohibit council from developing the referendum, which must be in response to a legislative action of council.
The municipality could receive bids for the rights as early as May 2015. Hillebrand said Huntley does not intend to begin drilling in Murrysville for at least three more years.
As a resident, Hillebrand said, he thinks it's a good idea to allow drilling below the park.
“It's a no brainer — we're going to do what we're going to do,” he said, regarding drilling in the municipality. “That does allow the opportunity, without touching surface, to generate revenues for that park. There are potentially millions of dollars in revenues to put back into community.”
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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