Rural Neighborhoods at Risk of Becoming Industrial Areas Due to Zoning Changes that Allow Widespread Oil and Gas Drilling

Families in Robinson Township, Pennsylvania filed a legal challenge to a new zoning ordinance that promises radical change to the rural character of the area by allowing oil and gas well site development, including drilling and fracking, as a permitted use in agricultural and rural residential neighborhoods

Robinson Township, Washington County, PA. // Sept. 4, 2014 // Fearing dramatic change to the rural and agricultural character of their community, six residents of Robinson Township today filed a challenge to the township’s recently amended zoning ordinance, which opened up a majority of the zoning districts to oil and gas development and related industrial facilities.

On August 7, the Board of Supervisors of Robinson Township, Washington County, located west of Pittsburgh, amended the local zoning ordinance to allow the development of oil and gas well sites—which includes heavy industrial activities such as drilling and hydraulic fracturing that bring traffic, noise, and pollution—as a permitted use in rural residential neighborhoods and agricultural areas.

By making such sweeping changes to the township’s zoning map, the Board of Supervisors is alleged to have ignored its duties under the Pennsylvania Constitution and other state law by elevating the commercial interests of private oil and gas development above the public’s interest in developing and preserving the township in a manner consistent with the township’s comprehensive plan.

The township residents filing the challenge are Cathy and Christopher Lodge, Brenda and Nolan Vance, and Irene and Richard Barrie.  On their behalf, attorneys with the firm Cafardi Ferguson Wyrick Weis + Stanger llc in consultation with the Environmental Integrity Project filed a substantive validity challenge of the ordinance with the Robinson Township Zoning Hearing Board.

The six residents seek to preserve the rural character of the township and the agricultural way of life they have known for decades. Their families live in either agricultural conservation or rural residential districts. They worry about a sharp increase in oil and gas activity near their homes, including the construction and operation of well pads, wastewater impoundments, compressor stations, processing facilities, and large swaths of temporary housing for well site workers.  The new ordinance makes it easier to construct and operate an oil and gas well in the agricultural district than a seed store, and removed the requirement that oil and gas development demonstrate that it would be harmonious with the uses permitted in the zoning district.

Under the township’s prior zoning ordinance, oil and gas development was prohibited in agricultural conservation or rural residential districts like those the six residents live in unless the Zoning Hearing Board granted a “special exception,” requiring a formal public hearing and vote by the board, under rigorous standards.

By contrast, the new zoning ordinance allows drilling and related work as a permitted use and eliminates the right to a public hearing and the need for Zoning Hearing Board approval.  This removes the ability of impacted citizens to raise their concerns and objections in a formal hearing before decisions are made to allow heavy industrial activity.   Under the special exception process, the Zoning Hearing Board would tailor its approval of any oil and gas use to account for the particular facts of each case and could include conditions, restrictions, and safeguards for local residents.

The purpose of the challenge is to overturn the August 7 zoning ordinance and restore the protections to the rural and agricultural character of the township.

About the groups:

Cafardi Ferguson Wyrick Weis + Stanger, LLC, is a business law firm based in Wexford, PA, with experience in litigation, construction, land use and development, zoning, municipal law and other business-centered areas of practice.

The Environmental Integrity Project, begun in 2002, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by former EPA attorneys to ensure the enforcement of environmental laws and the protection of public health.

Media Contacts:

Tom Pelton, Director of Communications, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 888-2703.

Dwight Ferguson, Founding Partner, Cafardi Ferguson Wyrick Weis + Stanger, llc (412) 515-8900.

To read the zoning board challenge, click here.