Citizen group's challenge of Murrysville's fracking ordinance to stretch into 2019
A fight over fracking in Murrysville — a battle already approaching a decade in the making — will continue into 2019, as a group of residents challenged the validity of a local ordinance governing unconventional gas drilling in the well-heeled Westmoreland County community.
“This ordinance was not drafted to serve the interests of Murrysville residents,” said John Smith, a Pittsburgh attorney representing the Murrysville Watch Committee, the group opposing the ordinance municipal officials approved in May 2017 . “It was not done to ensure the public’s health, safety and welfare. It was done so that Murrysville wouldn’t get sued by the drillers.”
The resident committee outlined its challenge before the Murrysville zoning hearing board Nov. 29. Hearings will continue Jan. 24.
Multiple attorneys for the municipality, landowners who support fracking and a regional driller explained why the ordinance should be left as-is.
Murrysville council members voted 6-1 last year to approve their fracking ordinance, which they fine-tuned, re-examined and tweaked over seven years. Monroeville drillers Huntley & Huntley soon after requested state permits to drill a 4-acre well pad and access road on 71 acres in eastern Murrysville.
In developing the ordinance, Murrysville officials created an overlay district where drilling could take place. It was added to rules governing existing rural-residential zoned land and encompasses a little more than a third of the municipality. Setbacks and other restrictions, however, shrink drilling opportunities to 6 percent of properties within Murrysville’s boundaries.
Smith’s argument centered on drilling as an industrial activity, questioning why it would be permitted anywhere in a rural-residential district.
“Apartments are not permitted in a rural-residential district … a senior nursing-care home is not permitted,” Smith said. “So a driller couldn’t have an apartment there, but could have an industrial drill rig.”
Bernie Matthews, an attorney representing several Murrysville landowners who support fracking, pointed to another local fracking case in which the state Commonwealth Court denied an appeal by Allegheny Township property owners. Those residents want the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn multiple rulings allowing unconventional gas drilling in all of the township’s zoning districts.
Matthews also is Allegheny Township’s solicitor.
Smith said the overlay district imposed by Murrysville sets aside the expectation current residents have for what can and cannot happen near their homes.
“My clients bought their homes thinking they could rely on this (zoning) district and what was supposed to happen there,” he said.
As it currently stands, Murrysville’s ordinance mandates 750 feet between the edge of a well pad and any protected structure.
Smith contended the setback, which was originally proposed at 1,600 feet, “is just a number. It’s not based on science, it’s not based on a desire to protect people.”
Matthews said he isn’t aware of any Pennsylvania case where a validity challenge is based on the notion that an ordinance doesn’t go far enough in regulating a particular activity.
“These challenges are nearly always based on the idea that an ordinance has gone too far in its regulation,” Matthews said. “If the Commonwealth Court held up Allegheny Township’s ordinance — which is less restrictive — as valid, then as a matter of law, Murrysville’s ordinance is valid.”
Smith argued that Murrysville officials were simply looking for a way to accommodate drillers, rather than thinking about residents. Overlay districts typically provide more protections rather than change underlying districts, he said.
“This overlay changes the underlying district by permitting industrial drilling,” Smith said. “Murrysville looked at, ‘How can we accommodate drilling and not get sued?’ ”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, email@example.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.