Court ruling: Local government has a constitutional charge to protect the environment and quality of life for its citizens, Gorsline case rejects gas operations in residential neighborhood

Court ruling: Local government has a constitutional charge to protect the environment and quality of life for its citizens, Gorsline case rejects gas operations in residential neighborhood Press Release by Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, September 3, 2014, PR Newswire HARRISBURG, Pa.

On Friday, August 29, Judge Marc F. Lovecchio of the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County decided in favor of local residents in vacating and setting aside a conditional use permit that would have allowed Inflection Energy, LLC to build and operate a natural gas pad in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Fairfield Township. The case was an early test of the Robinson Township decision, where the Supreme Court used Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment to strike down parts of Act 13 that sought to compel local government to allow gas operations across all zoned districts, including residential districts.

Dawn Gorsline, one of the local residents represented by PennFuture, expressed her joy at hearing of the decision. Said Mrs. Gorsline, “We prayed so hard and long. Like many persons, we purchased our home in a residential neighborhood with the expectation that we would raise our children in a healthy environment. We are so grateful to PennFuture for their efforts to protect my family, home and neighborhood. The residents of Fairfield Township would, without a doubt, be in a ‘much darker’ place without them.”

“We are pleased that the court supported the rights of citizens to rely on local zoning to protect their property values and way of life,” said George Jugovic, Jr., chief counsel for PennFuture. “Robinson Township recognized that local governments have a constitutional obligation to protect the environment and quality of life of their citizens and this decision affirms that principle.”

Mark Szybist, staff attorney and co-counsel for PennFuture, praised the work of the Court. “It is plain from the decision that Judge Lovecchio took extraordinary care to meticulously review the record. His decision is a wake-up call to all municipalities that after Robinson Township, local government cannot ignore their Article I, Section 27 responsibilities. Pennsylvania courts get it.”

Judge Lovecchio ruled that Fairfield Township’s zoning ordinance only permitted gas drilling as a conditional use in its Residential-Agriculture district if the proposed land use was “similar to and compatible with” the residential and other low-impact uses authorized as a right in the district. In holding that the Township’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence, the Court stated that the constitutional right of citizens to a healthy environment “cannot be ignored and must be protected.” The Court found that the company had failed to provide the township with any evidence to support the conclusion that the proposed use was similar and compatible, while the citizens had “presented substantial evidence that there is a high degree of probability that the use will adversely affect the health, welfare and safety of the neighborhood.”

“There is a long-held tradition in Pennsylvania that citizens can, through their local governments, endeavor to maintain the character of their communities,” said Cindy Dunn, president and CEO of PennFuture. “With this decision, the court affirmed citizen rights with respect to land use.”

The full decision

PennFuture is a statewide public interest membership organization founded in 1998 with offices in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre. The organization’s activities include litigating cases before regulatory bodies and in local, state, and federal courts; advocating and advancing legislative action on a state and federal level; public education; and assisting citizens in public advocacy.

[Refer also to:

December 20, 2013: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Says It’s Unconstitutional For Gas Companies To Frack Wherever They Want; Act 13, Gas Industry Takeover Law thrown out by State’s Highest Court

“By any responsible account,” [Pennsylvanian Supreme Court] Chief Justice Castille wrote, “the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.” ]

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