PA Supreme Court: Oil and gas wells may not be an acceptable use in certain residential/agricultural zoned areas

In a 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township, J-13-2017, 2018 Pa. LEXIS 2781 (June 1, 2018), announced a ruling that may impact shale gas development in non-industrially zoned areas throughout Pennsylvania. In the case, Fairfield Township approved an application to permit Inflection Energy, LLC to drill multiple gas wells in a residential-agricultural zoned area. The issuance of the permit was based upon the township board of supervisors’ determination that the drilling and operation of the wells was “similar to and compatible with the other uses permitted in the zone” where the property is located and that the wells constituted a “public service facility” under the local zoning code. Two local families appealed the township’s decision.

The trial court overturned the decision to permit the oil and gas wells, finding that the board’s classification of the wells as “similar to” a “public service facility” was not supported by substantial evidence. The intermediate appellate court reversed the trial court, finding that the oil and gas company’s proposed use was similar to and compatible with a “public service facility” and/or an “essential service.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the board’s determination to permit the wells as “similar to and compatible with” a “public service facility” or “essential service” was an error as a matter of law. The Court reasoned that the proposed drilling did not demonstrate any benefit to the local community such that it could be considered a public service facility but indicated its decision did not decide that all oil and gas development in residential or agricultural zones is unacceptable as a matter of Pennsylvania law. In fact, the Court noted that the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code specifically “permits the governing body of a municipality to amend its zoning ordinances to permit oil and gas development in any or all of its zoning districts.” For more, read the full Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story.

Oil & Gas Litigation, Pennsylvania