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Murrysville takes an unusual approach to drilling decision

By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

Murrysville officials next month will vote whether to solicit bids for the gas rights under more than 260 acres at Murrysville Community Park.

But rather than to decide to accept any offer on its own, municipal council has encouraged residents to develop a referendum question to put the future of drilling under the park to a public vote in November.

Typically, that decision is left up to elected officials, said Mike Hillebrand, chief operating officer and vice president of Monroeville-based Huntley & Huntley.

His company works primarily in eastern Allegheny County and throughout Westmoreland County and stands to profit from receiving approval to drill.

This is a first time he has seen community officials consider putting a drilling lease out for a referendum vote.

“We elect our officials to make better decisions,” said Hillebrand, a Murrysville resident. “This just bogs the wheel down. We elect council to make those decisions.”

That's what happened in North Huntingdon, where commissioners last month agreed to a 10-year lease with Huntley & Huntley.

The deal netted the township nearly $440,000— $1,600 per acre — for the oil-and-gas rights under Braddock's Trail and Oak Hollow parks.

“I don't want to say it was easy, but to be honest, other than negotiating the terms of the contract, the decision was relatively easy,” said Richard Gray, president of the township commissioners. “We knew drilling was going to take place anyways, even if we didn't sign the lease.”

After receiving an offer from a drilling company last year, North Huntingdon officials solicited other offers, as Murrysville officials might do. Allegheny County officials did the same thing with the gas rights at Pittsburgh International Airport in Findlay, county executive Rich Fitzgerald said. Consol Energy's CNX is slated to begin drilling near the airport this year.

County officials are weighing an offer from Huntley & Huntley and Range Resources to drill under Deer Lake Park in Frazier and West Deer. Fitzgerald said he and other county administrators evaluate which county properties are best suited for Marcellus shale operations.

There are no plans to seek offers for the rights under Boyce Park in Monroeville and Plum, he said.

For the airport gas rights, the county received $50 million up front and expects to receive $450 million during the next 20 years. The Deer Lakes lease, if approved, would bring in $4.7 million up front and a $3 million park improvement fund, plus long-term royalties.

“We are voted in to make policies to improve the quality of life,” Fitzgerald said. “We're elected to do all of these things and spend money on important things like roads and public safety.”

In Jefferson Hills, there has been speculation that EQT wants to lease the gas rights under 20-acre Beedle Park. In July, borough council agreed to allow seismic testing under the park, but hasn't been approached for an official lease, said Allen Cohen, planning and zoning director.

“The decision is up to council,” Cohen said.

Cohen formerly worked as municipal planner in Murrysville and said the municipality has options that other communities don't.

“Murrysville is unique in that it's a home-rule charter community,” Cohen said. “They have that referendum option.”

Murrysville Councilman Dave Perry said he thinks a referendum is a good idea.

“The intent is to really try to evaluate what the residents want,” Perry said. “The reason I supported this idea is that this is very similar to what happened when I was elected five years ago.”

In 2009, Perry, Jeff Kepler and Ron Summerhill unseated several council members after residents balked at the proposed Marketplace on 22 development.

“You had a very vocal, what appeared to be a minority, that didn't want Marketplace on 22 to be approved,” Perry said. “We could make the decision on our own, but we would prefer the input of the residents in making this decision.”

Educating residents is important, Perry said. He has been charged with bringing in speakers for municipal workshops to educate residents about what leasing the gas rights will mean for the community.

That's an approach that North Huntington also took.

Gray said his board offered several opportunities for public comment and hosted educational forums for residents with representatives from the state, Huntley and industry and environmental experts.

There wasn't a groundswell of opposition, Gray said – just about 10 to 15 residents who lived near the parks who were against drilling near the parks.

“We gave the public, in our opinion, ample time to respond and get input,” Gray said. “We're hoping to make the drilling palatable. Clearly, there are some people who will not ever accept it.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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