Local zoning laws new issue in Shale fees

Several Republicans have changed their minds and now oppose limiting municipalities.

Posted: January 26, 2012

HARRISBURG - Differences over local zoning have surfaced as a new potential obstacle to lawmakers' efforts to agree on an impact fee on Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas producers and modernize safety regulations on the drilling industry.

Several Republican senators have changed their minds and on Wednesday signed a letter to Senate leaders saying they now oppose a provision in separate House and Senate bills to limit municipalities' authority to control drilling activity.

Securing strict limits is a priority of the natural gas industry, as a way to prevent municipal officials from imposing ordinances that effectively prevent drilling. But the nearly identical limits that were approved late last year by the House and Senate in separate bills are not as strict as ones sought by Gov. Corbett, a Republican, or many in the industry, and now some past supporters of those limits say they go too far.

"We have a way of dealing with the tanks and the compressor stations and the transfer stations in current law and this industry should not get special consideration," said Sen. Charles McIlhinney (R., Bucks), one of nine senators who signed the letter.

Six of those senators, however, have voted twice for bills containing the provision limiting municipal control over drilling - in November and December - and their new position could force changes if a bill is to overcome strong opposition by Democrats to that and various other elements.

The provision, the senators wrote, "removes a local municipality's ability to regulate and control all land use in their area" and "works more like a model ordinance by specifically spelling out permitted uses."

Instead, they said they would support a bill that copies an existing law, nicknamed ACRE, allowing a farm operator to ask the state Attorney General's Office to review whether a local ordinance complies with state law. The Attorney General's Office can then go to court to overturn the local ordinance if lawyers there believe it goes beyond state law that regulates farming.

"There's continuing enlightenment on every bill, and now that we're getting close to compromise language, we want to make sure it's the right compromise language," said Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery).

Thus far, closed-door negotiations between Corbett and his fellow Republicans who lead the House and Senate have revolved around the size of the impact fee, how it is collected, and where the money goes. The parties say they are getting closer to an agreement.

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