Leet, Bell Acres address oil and gas zoning

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 | 6:00 AM

Leet Township commissioners voted three new ordinances into law March 11 that define oil and gas operations, according to Donna Adipietro, who sits on the township’s planning commission.

Leet joins others municipalities, including Bell Acres, that have taken similar actions. Natural gas drilling and testing activity has become more common across the state, and having updated ordinances can help municipalities locate these operations away from populated areas.

The action taken by Leet Township was largely preemptive, according to Adipietro.

“Seeing what was going on in neighboring communities, we felt it best to get our ducks in a row and make sure that as elected and appointed officials that we’re there to protect our residents to the best of our abilities,” she said.

According to the website MarcellusGas.org, Economy Borough has three permitted well-pad sites that have been cleared for natural gas drilling. The B50 well pad is located just over a mile from Big Sewickley Creek Road outside of Bell Acres.

Diane Abell, chair of the Bell Acres planning commission, said she and other community members are concerned about the impact of gas drilling on residents. She cited reduced air quality and disturbances resulting from the transport of heavy equipment to and from well sites, among other concerns.

Adipietro said drilling can have a negative impact on property values — an issue proponents of the industry don’t always consider.

Doug Shields, a former Pittsburgh city councilman and environmental litigation paralegal who is now employed by the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, has worked with municipal councils throughout Allegheny County to help them improve their oil and gas ordinances. He noted that local governments do not have the authority to ban natural gas drilling.

Pennsylvania law requires municipalities to allow all “legal uses” of land, including natural gas drilling, within their boundaries, Shields said. The question, as Shields put it, becomes, “where does the gas well go?”

Abell said municipalities can limit drilling activity to an industrial area, where it would have minimal impact on residents.

“They either have to make sure that they zone it within the industrial zoning district that they have, or if they don’t have one, they probably need to look into creating one,” Abell said.

The state supreme court, Shields said, has defined a gas well as an “industrial use” in its 2013 ruling on state oil and gas law. But 44 of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities are one square mile or smaller. For small municipalities, it can be a “practical impossibility” to carve out an industrial area, he added.

Leet Township is 1.48 square miles and is primarily residential. Instead of designating an industrial zone, the township created “setbacks,” requiring that any well pad be located approximately 500 feet from a home and 1,500 feet from certain “protected structures” like schools and other public buildings, according to Adipietro. Leet also created conditional use guidelines that define the approval process for drilling operations.

“They have to file an application and go through all the procedures necessary in order for them to be approved by the zoning board and township,” Adipietro said.

The third ordinance Leet Township passed requires companies to file an application limiting the areas where they can conduct seismic testing.

Shields praised Leet and Bell Acres for updating their ordinances to account for oil and gas operations. He said residents with concerns about the impact of natural gas drilling should contact a local official and ask if their municipality has protective zoning ordinances.

In addition to implementing an industrial zone and accounting for seismic testing, Shields said municipal leaders can prohibit the leasing of public land. He also stressed the importance of having a 10-year master plan, which would require a natural gas company to share their long-term plans for infrastructure build-out.

He emphasized that natural gas drilling is here to stay in Pennsylvania.

“This activity’s been going on since ‘06, it’s here, it’s not going to go away, and if your municipality doesn’t address this in their zoning code, they need to,” Shields said.