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Does “Robinson Township V. Commonwealth” Set Precedent for Local Ordinances Against Oil & Gas Operations?

 

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All across the country, townships are passing local ordinances banning corporations from making decisions that could negatively impact human and property rights of township residents.  Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, won a landmark case in the state supreme court this December – “invalidat[ing]  Pennsylvania’s efforts to regulate land uses associated with oil and gas operations on a uniform statewide basis,” according to this article by Paul K. Stockman.

Stockman concludes:

The lack of a majority (and the participation of only six justices) makes it hazardous to predict the ultimate effect of the court’s opinions. (The decision could turn out to be a “one-off” whose precedential effect is muted.) Even so, some immediate conclusions are apparent:

  • Statewide land-use regulation is now practically impossible. Given the court’s emphasis on the need for local zoning control (either under the Environmental Rights Amendment or substantive due process), it may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to regulate land use on a statewide basis.
  • Some municipalities will restrict or even try to ban oil and gas operations. Given municipalities’ new freedom to regulate oil- and gas-related land uses, some municipalities may impose further restrictions, making oil and gas development in some locales much more expensive or even effectively impossible.
  • Local zoning is now “constitutionalized.” The Commonwealth Court and Justice Baer’s concurrence recognized a constitutional right to retain a particular zoning classification. While the plurality bypassed such a holding, it showed sympathy for the principle (for example, by stressing the “reasonable expectations” that arise out of land use restrictions). As a result, it is difficult to see how zoning rules could be revised to allow more intense land uses, and the General Assembly, having given permission to enact local zoning, now appears to lack the ability to withdraw that authority.
  • Municipalities in some areas now have equal or greater power than the state. As the dissent noted, the majority opinions have altered the basic relationship between the commonwealth and its municipalities. For the first time, municipalities now have rights that are separate from and that may be inconsistent with those of the General Assembly that created them. By allowing localities to sue the commonwealth and by giving them an equal role in enforcing the Environmental Rights Amendment, the ruling effectively gives counties, cities and boroughs independent status as equal sovereigns.

 

With Act 13 (which “violated the Pennsylvania Constitution’s provisions protecting the inherent rights of mankind, limiting eminent domain and guaranteeing the conservation of natural resources, among other things“) effectively overturned, townships now have a legal precedent and the power to take control over their resources and human rights.

 The township ordinance strategy is worth researching and pursuing for Lancaster residents that are serious about stopping the proposed natural gas pipelines.

To read the full article on “Robinson Township vs Commonwealth” click here.

To learn more about local ordinance strategy, visit the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s website.  CELDF advocates and provides legal advice for communities wishing to protect themselves.  Click here.