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Murrysville moves on fracking ordinance

Patrick Varine
| Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, 10:33 p.m.

Murrysville council edged one step closer to a final vote on its unconventional drilling ordinance, which has been years in the making.

Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to send the ordinance to planners for a 45-day comment period, after which it can set a public hearing before scheduling a vote.

At issue — and a topic that has long stoked polarizing opinions — is the 800-foot setback being imposed from the edge of well pads. Council members voted down two proposed amendments, one to increase the setback to 1,200 feet and another to decrease it to 650.

“I don't think raising it to 1,200 feet would be legally defensible,” said Councilman Josh Lorenz.

Several residents and property owners who spoke in opposition to the ordinance said the 800-foot setback was already too much. The state's minimum required setback is 500 feet.

“I think (drilling) is regulated enough,” said resident Arthur Hawk. “The state has regulations. I don't think the little town of Murrysville needs to (add more). We had the first gas well. Let's be pro-gas. Let's get this stuff out of the ground.”

Municipal officials presented a series of maps outlining drillable areas with various setbacks: at the proposed 800 feet, they calculated 29 drillable areas totaling more than 1,340 acres, or just under 6 percent of the municipality.

Monroeville-based driller Huntley & Huntley holds most of the drilling leases in Murrysville. Tyler Herget, a senior land manager for the company, said its calculations — taking into account state restrictions and topography — put the number closer to 1 percent.

“This is borderline illegal,” Herget said. “Beyond Huntley, there are many companies in the industry that will consider this ordinance exclusionary, and many of them are much more litigious than Huntley is.”

Murrysville Chief Administrator Jim Morrison said he is confident that legal precedent exists for municipalities to regulate where drilling can take place.

“This is probably the most difficult land-use issue that local governments have to deal with,” he said. “We have to walk a fine line between health and safety considerations and development rights for minerals. I think we've done a good job walking that line.”

Vicki Higgins of Washington Township, whose family owns property along Farm Road, said residents who have spoken out against drilling do not represent the majority of the municipality.

“Three hundred signatures (on anti-drilling petitions) do not represent the view of more than 20,000 residents,” Higgins said. “Those people had a chance to elect three new council members who were solely in opposition to natural gas drilling, and all three were defeated.”

Councilman Jeff Kepler proposed increasing the setback to 1,200 feet. He said council must strike a balance to satisfy everyone's needs.

“We need a setback to protect those who feel they need that protection, but also provide opportunities with a waiver for those who want to take additional risk to get the use out of their land,” he said. “It's the balanced approach; it's the right approach.”

Both Morrison and council President Joan Kearns made reference to modern drilling technology allowing rigs to reach up to a mile-and-a-half underground.

“A rig may be a mile away, but it can still reach your property, and you can make money from your property rights,” Kearns said.

Kepler said he didn't feel discussion of the ordinance should be likened to a debate, where there is a clear winner and loser. Lorenz agreed.

“I think, ultimately, the decision we come up with will not make anyone ecstatic,” Lorenz said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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