Murrysville petitioners face challenge to place drilling question on ballot
Alyson Holt knows that getting more than 3,000 Murrysville residents to sign a petition is a formidable task. But she's driven by what's at stake.
Holt, 41, is helping lead the way to put a referendum question on the November ballot to help council decide whether to lease the oil and gas rights under Murrysville Community Park to Marcellus shale drillers.
“That's a hugely ambitious project to get underway,” Holt said of the petition drive.
“I've never even served on student council. I know next to nothing about politics. But I want to help form the future of fracking in Murrysville.”
Council is reviewing an ordinance that would solicit bids for those rights under 262 acres of the park along Wiestertown Road.
The municipality received an offer from Monroeville-based drilling company Huntley & Huntley that would net nearly $600,000 up front for the drilling rights and 12.5 percent of the profit the company earned on any gas extracted.
Unsure of which direction residents want council to go, officials asked residents to form a group to devise a question that would appear on the November ballot, a feat that requires more than 3,000 residents to sign a petition.
Enter Holt, a mother of four children under the age of 9.
She grew up in Murrysville before leaving for college in California. She and her family moved back seven years ago.
Each spring, Holt watches her sons run around Murrysville Community Park, sprinting across the soccer fields with hundreds of other children. But she doesn't think that will be the case if a Marcellus shale well pad is erected nearby.
“There are hundreds of kids that use that park on any given Saturday,” she said. “With the recent Greene County explosion, I'm thinking, ‘What in the world would make us, as a community, want this next to a park that we built for recreation?' ”
So Holt set up a Facebook page — Murrysville Fracking Discussion — to start a community dialogue on the topic.
That was the quickest way to get word out about the petition and what Murrysville is considering, she said.
She doesn't have much time, due to guidelines set by the municipal home rule charter. Residents have 45 days to circulate a petition in response to an ordinance adopted by council.
To put a referendum question on the ballot, the petition must have the signature of at least 20 percent of registered voters.
That's a lot to ask of residents, Councilman Dave Perry said.
“It's (ridiculous) to ask residents to try to get 3,009 signatures for a referendum in 45 days,” Perry said. “That's a virtual impossibility. That's a very difficult bar to meet to get those signatures.”
Holt won't be working alone. Earlier this month, representatives from Citizens for the Preservation of Rural Murrysville agreed to help educate residents and circulate the petition. The group met last week to begin organizing.
Residents can't begin getting signatures until council enacts the ordinance, which Perry said he expects to happen on April 16. Then the clock begins.
But until then, Holt and other residents are focusing on education. The Facebook page features links to articles and information about drilling.
The park is one of two in Murrysville's oil-and-gas recovery district.
Municipal regulations permit surface drilling — which officials said they will not entertain at the park — in the district.
However, Huntley has acquired land adjacent to the park. Perry said he expects drilling to occur near the park, but he said officials hope to be able to work with Huntley to ensure that the company goes above the requirements from the state and municipal regulations.
“Leasing could help significantly lessen the impact in that area,” Perry said.
But drilling near any park ignites fear in Holt.
She worries that some children won't be able to participate in sports anymore because of fumes and pollution.
“I want it to send a strong signal to council that, hopefully, we don't want fracking underneath our Murrysville Community Park,” Holt said.
“Why did we build this park for our children's use if we're going to put something that puts their health at risk next to it?
“Communities like Murrysville have a huge amount to lose,” Holt added. “Not the least of which are the health of their residents and the reputation of their communities as a great place to live.”
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or email@example.com.