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Penn Township panel recommends plan for revision of zoning ordinance, map

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

After more than a year of review, revisions and debates, the Penn Township Planning and Zoning Commission this week recommended the township commissioners approve a revised zoning ordinance and zoning map.

The planners said they prefer a map revised April 18, which they expect will be changed again by the township commissioners within a 45-day review period. That would prompt a new planning commission review, which could last 45 days, if the changes are “substantive,” said Michael Korns, planning commission solicitor.

The zoning map recommended for approval is not substantially different than one devised by the township in October 2014, said Phillip Miller, planning commission chairman.

“This isn't like the end of the process,” Miller said.

In addition, the planners offered their recommendation on seven proposed zoning changes.

“Every time we make changes, we go back to square one,” Korns said.

The zoning ordinance should be reviewed by the Westmoreland County planning department after the commissioners finish their review, Korns said.

Discussions over the new zoning ordinance have been ongoing since October 2014, when township commissioners passed a resolution intending to adopt it. The ordinance was never approved even though it went into effect, Korns said. The township needs to adopt a zoning ordinance to protect it against court challenges, the solicitor said.

“Without it, it would go back to the previous ordinance when there were no restrictions on oil and gas exploration,” Korns said.

As in previous meetings, much of the public discussion over the zoning ordinance centered on regulating the oil and natural gas industry.

Christine Snyder of Concord Drive wanted requirements that drilling operations be more than 500 feet from residences and schools.

“I don't want to live 500 feet from a well, and I don't want to send my children to a school 500 feet from a well,” Snyder said.

Snyder claimed the value of her property would be reduced if she lived 500 feet from a well.

“We don't need these wells to survive,” Snyder said.

The 500-foot setback “is an insult to the community as a whole,” resident Bill Leonard said.

If the township increased the requirements for a setback on gas drilling wells, Korns said, that might be so restrictive it could be vulnerable to court challenges. The ordinance would need language saying that an increase in the setback is based on topography, residential neighborhoods, wind direction and other factors, he said.

The ordinance should not be so restrictive that it hampers commercial activity, said Cheryl Parson of Parson Lane, who opposes any attempt to include the language of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution. That 1971 amendment guarantees the public the right to clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, historic and scenic values of the environment.

“The standards are absolutely unattainable” and would force the township to regulate commercial activity such as service stations and home construction, Parson said.

“You can't put unreasonable restrictions on one industry,” she said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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