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Local Officials Slam Impact Fee's Zoning Restrictions

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Dozens of local officials spoke out against the impact fees at Tuesday's meeting

Township and borough managers, council members and supervisors are pushing back against Republican leaders who want to limit local governments’ ability to zone natural gas drilling.
Two impact fees in front of state lawmakers would place firm guidelines on what municipalities can and can’t regulate, when it comes to Marcellus Shale activity. Local officials concerned about the measures filled Green Tree, Allegheny County’s municipal building tonight, and railed against the two impact fees for more than two hours.
Rich Grossman, a planner in Slippery Rock, Butler County, was one of the first speakers.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Slippery Rock planner Rich Grossman

Grossman pointed out that as a university town, Slippery Rock has dealt with its share of zoning headaches.  Planners recently issued their first conditional use permit to a Marcellus Shale rig, he said. “And the township’s position on that is they plan carefully for where in this unique community the development of oil and gas can occur, just as they plan carefully in their unique community, where appropriate places are for fraternity houses, light and heavy industry, and commercial uses.”
Grossman’s worried the two impact fees would erode local power. “If the state legislature preempts the ability of a municipality to regulate this one industry, why not preempt the ability to regulate every industry?”
Supporters of the bills say that’s already the case. Municipalities can’t pass their own gun control laws in Pennsylvania, and local driving regulations are strictly limited. The impact fee’s zoning restrictions are based on the 2005 ACRE law, which bars local governments from zoning most agricultural activities. Kathryn Klaber heads the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents drillers in Pennsylvania.vIn a recent interview with StateImpact, she said the industry needs statewide zoning consistency in order to keep growing. “The clarity, what is so important,” said Klaber, “is that you understand what’s coming. And companies can plan for – and the natural gas industry plans for quite a few regulations and requirements.”
Several of the speakers at the meeting acknowledged the industry position, but countered, that, well, communities need clarity, too. People want to move into a neighborhood, and know a factory or strip mall won’t be built next door.
Richard Ward, the manager of Robinson Township, Washington County, argued  that consistency comes from zoning. “It allows us to predict how and when and where things are going to happen in our communities,” he said. “That, to me, is more important than balancing that against the needs of the industry. Not saying the needs of the industry are not important, but I believe the needs of the population outweighs that.”
The meeting began calm, with Ward and other local officials delivering PowerPoint presentations on legislative details. The crowd grew feisty as the evening wore on. Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields stirred the pot, railing on big energy companies for their large profit margins, and then blasting the impact fee’s plan to let the state Attorney General decide whether local zoning measures are reasonable. “The Attorney General’s going to be the final arbiter of everything? When the hell did the attorney general become the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania?”
Several people worried the session was too little, too late, pointing the Senate has scheduled an impact fee vote for today. But the legislation is far from a done deal.
House and Senate leaders are still negotiating the final measure’s details. They haven’t agreed on whether a fee would be issued by the county or state, among other issues. Today’s Senate vote is a procedural maneuver, aimed at moving negotiations to a joint conference committee.
Whether the bill passes this week or next year, Wanda Godfrey of Murrysville, Westmoreland County, worried she’s skeptical local governments can stop it, at this point. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to have to do some kind of a lawsuit. I think we are going to have to get organized as townships,” she said.
They might have a bit more time to organize: the Senate goes home for the year after today, so a final impact fee vote will likely have to wait until 2012.

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