PA Judge to PUC: Cease & Desist Act 13 Zoning Reviews

cease and desistOn Friday, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Keith Quigley issued a “cease and desist” order to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) telling them they can no longer review PA towns’ zoning ordinances for compliance with the new Act 13 drilling law (a copy of his order is embedded below). MDN has chronicled the ongoing fight between seven PA towns and the state over the state’s new standardized “one size fits all” zoning ordinance for oil and gas drilling (see this MDN story for background).

The lawsuit brought by the seven towns is now before the state Supreme Court waiting for a decision. In advance of that, the PUC said there are some zoning provisions not challenged in the lawsuit and they are evaluating those kinds of cases. The PUC has ruled that some of the seven towns in the lawsuit are not in compliance and the PUC is withholding their impact fee checks pending a decision from the Supreme Court—it’s a lot of money. Judge Quigley has said “no more” and now the attorney for those towns is demanding the PUC cut the checks for the impact fees owed to the towns.

The state Commonwealth Court today ordered that the state Public Utility Commission had no authority to review local gas drilling ordinances and subsequently withhold Marcellus Shale drilling impact fee payments in four townships challenging the state’s drilling law, announced state Rep. Jesse White.

When a $204 million statewide disbursement of Marcellus shale drilling impact fees was  announced Oct. 15, documents released by the PUC that day noted that Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, Robinson and South Fayette townships were designated as communities whose money was being “withheld pending resolution of the requests for review of existing ordinances."

White said the PUC’s move, calling it a "violation of state law and political extortion," and the affected townships petitioned Commonwealth Court to rule on the matter.

The court agreed with them and today ordered the PUC to "cease and desist from acting upon requests pursuant to 58 Pa. C.S. 3305 to review municipal ordinances for compliance with the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, and Chapters 32 and 33 of Act 13” because of the Court’s July 26 order that struck down the local zoning provisions in the law.

Reached on the Commonwealth Court ruling Friday afternoon Cecil Solicitor John Smith, who spearheaded the Act 13 challenge and represents the four communities whose ordinances were under review and whose impact money was withheld issued the following statement:

"The municipalities we represent correctly interpreted the law as to the PUC’s role in ordinance reviews and despite the clear statutory provisions, the PUC sought to go forward anyway to deny close to $1 million of impact monies to these select ACT 13 plaintiffs. As the Commonwealth Court agreed completely with our position, we fully expect and demand that the PUC immediately release the impact fees to these four communities."

Smith and Jon Kamin argued before the Commonwealth Court on Wednesday that the PUC didn’t have the authority to review the ordinances or withhold the impact money.

He added: "The judge found it very interesting that the only challenged communities were the Act 13 plaintiffs. The Commonwealth Court ordered the PUC to ‘cease and desist’ this activity.*

So far the PUC has not officially responded to the judge’s order. They say they’re studying it.

*Canon-McMillanPatch (Oct 26, 2012) – Commonwealth Court to PUC: ‘Cease and Desist’—Release the Impact Fee Money