The state Public Utility Commission’s choice Monday to suspend Marcellus Shale impact fee payments to townships challenging the state’s drilling law "not only amounts to political extortion, but is more importantly a clear violation of the law," state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil said in a statement.
Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, Robinson and South Fayette townships are noted as communities whose money is “withheld pending resolution of the requests for review of existing ordinances” in documents released by the PUC on Monday outlining a $204 million statewide disbursement of impact fees.
"However, Section 3308 of Act 13 states that municipalities would be ineligible to receive impact-fee funds only after the Public Utility Commission, Commonwealth Court or the state Supreme Court issues an order that a local ordinance violates the Municipal Planning Code."
While the PUC has challenged their ordinances, no determination has been made, and White said that led him to "condemn the PUC for improperly withholding the funds and calling on the Corbett administration and my counterparts in the Senate to urge the PUC to release the money in accordance with the law."
White added: “I don’t know what’s worse, the sorry and shameful hijacking and politicizing of the impact fee money, or the PUC’s blatant disregard for the law. To withhold impact fee money intended for critical needs such as road improvements and public safety from these townships at the epicenter of Marcellus Shale drilling activity isn’t just cruel, it’s clearly punitive and illegal.”
The four townships are locked in a legal battle against the state over zoning provisions in Act 13 that the communities believe override their constitutional right to use local zoning ordinances to regulate natural gas drilling.
The impact fees, as designed, are to be used for road and infrastructure improvements, police and fire protection and other measures local governments see fit to mitigate the impact of drilling in their communities. Cecil Township was scheduled to receive $246,098, Mt. Pleasant to receive $500,000, Robinson to receive $225,737.93 and South Fayette was to receive $2,731.39.
White said the impact fees should have nothing to do with the Act 13 challenge, which is based solely on the constitutionality of the zoning provisions in the law. White further noted that no drilling permit application has ever been denied in any of the townships in question, nor have any of the townships attempted to ban oil and gas operations.
“This is another of the divide-and-conquer techniques used by the industry, and by extension Governor Corbett, to split communities and drum up support for their own agenda,” the lawmaker continued. “How can any reasonable person look at this situation and conclude this is anything other than political payback?”
The PUC’s announcement comes just ahead of the oral arguments of the Act 13 challenge scheduled to be heard by the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, White noted.
White, in conjunction with the state House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, filed in September with the state Supreme Court a special legal brief, known as an "amicus curiae," to support Commonwealth Court’s ruling in July that the elimination of local zoning ordinances for oil and gas operations under Act 13 was unconstitutional.
Editor's Note: Cecil Township's attorney, John Smith, wrote a letter to the PUC Monday expressing his legal opinion that withholding the imapact fee money from those four communities violates Act 13. To read that story, click here.