Jefferson Hills farmer challenges borough's natural gas well restrictions
A Jefferson Hills farmer is challenging the validity of a borough ordinance she said halts her from having an unconventional natural gas well on her 197-acre property off Waterman Road.
Carol Ann Bucar filed for a curative amendment seeking to change the borough’s oil and gas development overlay district map, which only allows for unconventional oil and gas wells to be drilled through conditional use in 11 areas in the borough. Instead, she’s proposing the ordinance allow for the wells to be built on all land in the borough, through conditional use.
A public hearing was held Dec. 12 to begin testimony in Bucar’s case before Jefferson Hills council. More than 100 residents attended, several speaking in opposition of Bucar’s proposal. The hearing will continue on Jan. 31, at 6 p.m. in council chambers.
Bucar’s attorney Michael Hammond argued the borough’s overlay district map is “arbitrary” and the borough used “biased materials” when selecting areas where wells are allowed, “purposefully pushing oil and gas drilling to the edges of the borough.”
Through testimony, he argued the majority of the areas selected by the borough were not even feasible for gas wells. One is a fly ash site. Several others are on the land planned for the Route 43 extension.
John Smith, representing the borough, said the “process was far from arbitrary.” The borough had a task force that worked carefully on the ordinance, seeking public input, along with that of the police, firefighters and other municipalities, he said.
“There was thought. There was time, and this borough acted correctly and painstakingly to try to balance the rights,” he said. “What you’ve done is constitutional, and this ordinance should stay in place.”
Smith currently is representing the borough in an appeal by EQT Production Company and ET Blue Grass Clearing LLC, which is seeking a reversal of a decision by Jefferson Hills Council to deny a conditional use application to construct, operate and maintain a natural gas production facility on property known as the Bickerton Well Site. That appeal is currently before the state Supreme Court.
Bucar took the stand Dec. 12 to talk about her family farm where she raises cattle to sell and grows hay.
Bucar has an agreement with EQT for the mineral rights at all depths on her property. She was in negotiations with the company for surface plans to drill a well, but those never were finalized, as the borough’s ordinance was passed in 2014, she testified.
Smith questioned Bucar about how a well could affect the safety and quiet of the community.
She compared what she called “temporary” noise during the construction of the well to that of the dynamite when crews built Route 43.
“I believe they intentionally did not want me to have a well on my farm and therefore, they made sure the zoning didn’t allow that,” Bucar testified.
Jefferson Hills residents who gathered at the hearing had a list of concerns. They questioned if overturning the ordinance could lead to mine subsidence or earthquakes in the area and whether water would be affected.
The new $100 million Thomas Jefferson High School sits about 3,500 square feet from the Bucar’s land, her lawyers said.
Residents argued that’s not enough.
“It is not unreasonable to think that something could happen to that school and the children inside it,” said resident Lauryn Sacha.
Others worried about possible evacuations if the well failed. There are schools and a hospital not far from the Bucar’s farm, they said.
“I’m pretty concerned about all of this, as is my family,” said resident Jacqueline Hakala, adding a change to the borough’s ordinance could put her personal and financial investments at risk.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.