Will PA Landowners Pay Higher Property Taxes When Drilling Begins? Maybe

Landowners in Pennsylvania have gotten property tax relief in recent years from a PA law known as “Clean and Green.” If landowners keep their property use as agricultural, open space or forest-land, they are taxed at a lower rate (for those uses) rather than the higher fair market value the land might bring for other uses. But there’s a catch—if a landowner starts using the land for another non-agricultural use, they not only start paying higher taxes on it now, they also have to pay the difference in the tax rate between Clean and Green and fair market value going back up to seven years—as a penalty.

The intent of the program, which is administered through county government, is to encourage property owners to retain their land in agricultural, open-space or forest-land use by providing real estate tax relief.

Property owners benefit through lower taxes as long as their land isn’t used for housing developments or other uses inconsistent with agricultural production, open-space or forest-land use.

If a property owner decided to use the land for a purpose inconsistent with the program, the landowner would have to pay “rollback taxes” – the difference between fair market value and use value of the land – for as many years as the property had been designated Clean and Green, up to a maximum of seven years.*

So the million dollar question: If landowners allow drilling on their land, is that land disqualified from the Clean and Green lower tax rate? Right now, as things stand, each county will interpret the law the way they see fit. There is a bill that has passed the PA Senate and is now before for the House for consideration that would allow gas drilling on Clean and Green land without penalty.

Landowners who have signed leases where drilling will soon begin (or has already begun) need to monitor this situation. Landowners in PA who have not yet signed a lease would do well to be sure there is a clause requiring the driller to pay the difference in taxes should the bill not get signed into law.

*Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (May 11) – Drilling’s effect on ‘Clean and Green’ land uncertain

Susquehanna River Basin Commission Establishes Marcellus Shale Field Office in Northeast PA

To it’s credit, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) has established a field office in Northeastern PA specifically to monitor compliance with Marcellus drillers in the Susquehanna River watershed. Too bad the Delaware River Basin Commission is not as industrious and sensitive to landowners’ rights as the SRBC (no drilling allowed in the Delaware River watershed for the foreseeable future).

From the SRBC press release:

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) today announced the start-up of its first-ever field office aimed exclusively at enhancing compliance through increased on-site inspections, particularly of natural gas well development projects in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions. The field office is located on 1760 Elmira Street, Sayre, Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

This location strategically places SRBC’s compliance staff in and around the most active drilling areas in the upper basin region. It also allows staff to follow up more quickly on problems and concerns reported by basin citizens in Pennsylvania and New York.

Prior to the Sayre field office, staff drove from SRBC’s headquarters in Harrisburg to inspect natural gas well development sites and to meet with citizens and industry officials.

“Having our compliance staff closer to project areas to conduct inspections and to the citizens affected by the boom in natural gas drilling is intended to enhance our effectiveness and day-today efficiency,” said SRBC Executive Director Paul Swartz.

“For each and every water withdrawal or water use project the Commission approves, there are many subsequent and ongoing compliance requirements we impose on project sponsors such as monitoring and reporting. Because we take very seriously our obligations to verifying compliance, the Commission took the extraordinary and historic step of establishing the Sayre field office.”

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The Two (Drilling) Faces of PA Gov. Ed Rendell

Is Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pro- or anti-drilling? Darned if I can tell. In some ways he has encouraged and allowed drilling to flourish in PA under his watch, something PA landowners should be thankful for. But it seems he has to keep some in his own party appeased, so he often talks down drilling. In typical politician fashion, he talks out of both sides of his mouth. The latest example is today. One headline trumpets that Rendell has signed a deal with Anadarko for $120 million (Anadarko to pay Pennsylvania $120 mln for drilling – Reuters) to allow drilling on an additional 33K acres. But another headline says Rendell backs a stop to further leasing of PA public lands (Rendell backs halt to gas leasing in public lands – CBS/Channel 21), as if he’s champion of the anti-drillers. What gives?

Well, it’s the same Ed Rendell on the same day walking a tightrope. He did indeed sign a deal with Anadarko to lease land that is supposedly surrounded by other public land already leased for drilling and so, as the thinking goes, the newly leased land won’t be “disturbed” all that much since most of the drilling operations will be from adjacent land. But now that he’s got his fist-full of $120 million, he immediately announces he’s now on board with no further leasing (after today, of course). Methinks he’s not going to make either side happy—but then he’s not running for re-election. What a strange character, that Gov. Rendell.

Press release from Gov. Rendell’s office putting the master spin on today’s high-wire act:

Harrisburg – Governor Edward G. Rendell announced today that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has finalized a responsible natural gas lease agreement by which Pennsylvania will meet its need for revenue from drilling next year, while also fulfilling its obligation to protect Pennsylvania’s natural resources.

Under the agreement, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. has paid the commonwealth $120 million to access 32,896 acres that are surrounded by tracts of land for which drilling companies already hold lease agreements. Because these newly leased tracts can largely be accessed by gas operations on the adjacent tracts, the amount of new state forest surface area that must be disturbed is minimized.

Other than the agreement, the commonwealth will not have to make any additional state forest land available to reach its revenue goals for natural gas drilling in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

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