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Hempfield unlikely to take a side on Act 13's shale well fees

| Friday, July 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Hempfield Township supervisors likely will not take a position on controversial Act 13, which imposes impact fees on Marcellus shale drillers, at least until the Commonwealth Court rules on the law's constitutionality.

Attorney Les Mlakar advised the supervisors during a meeting on Wednesday that it would be “fruitless” for the township to adopt a resolution on the issue until the appeals court rules.

“I do have some concerns — and I think they are legitimate — about what the Legislature has done,” he said.

Act 13 imposes the impact fees on drillers but takes away local zoning oversight over drilling operations in a municipality.

Robinson and six other municipalities in Allegheny and Washington counties are appealing the act, arguing there is “no rational basis for any legitimate state interest and (it) cannot be justified on the basis of public health, safety or welfare.”

In Westmoreland County, the fees are expected to amount to $2 million and will be split among municipalities.

Drilling opponents have been lobbying Hempfield and other municipalities to adopt resolutions opposing the act. Because most of the activists live outside the township, the supervisors are considering limiting public debate on the law to township residents, taxpayer or property owners.

“Until you do something up there,” Mlakar said, pointing to the dais, “they're going to keep coming to meetings asking and cajoling. People who spoke are neither residents nor taxpayers of Hempfield Township.”

Mlakar advised the board to avoid a “feeding frenzy” and take no position on drilling, as Penn Township did. He said individual supervisors can publicly express their support or opposition to the act.

“I can't draft a resolution without knowing what your opinions are,” he said.

In their lawsuit, the seven municipalities in Washington and Allegheny counties argued that the state cannot assume control of zoning specifically for oil and gas operations. Local government, not the state, has the constitutional duty to protect natural resources, it contends.

Attorneys argue that Act 13 is a “special law” for a specific industry at the expense of other industries.

Municipal officials fear the proliferation of gas drilling effects such as water impoundments, hundreds of wells, miles of pipelines and on-site compressor and processing plants.

Opponents argue that municipalities would have to “plan around” drilling rather than “plan for” drilling in their zoning decisions.

Mlakar told Hempfield supervisors that they cannot legally impose a moratorium on drilling.

The state allowed a special provision in the act that bans drilling permits in Bucks and Montgomery counties until 2018 or until the state conducts an impact study on the effects of drilling in a region known as the South Newark Basin.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rga zarik@tribweb.com.

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