Elk County Commissioners were immersed in a 35-minute conversation Tuesday morning with township supervisors and county officials over Marcellus Shale issues, specifically land issues and the fallout from an ordinance passed two weeks ago regarding impact fees on the wells.
"Land use and zoning issues have always been something that comes with much controversy," said Elk County Commissioner Daniel R. Freeburg during the lengthy discussion. "Until there is a consensus made by the public, it's a hard thing to make a blatant statement on.
"Some municipalities are kind of seeing the light and the need for zoning, and land use controls, and the ultimate intent of course is the protection of a person's property."
As a former member of the county's planning department, Freeburg said "zoning and any type of regulation of land was something that most people did not want to even hear about."
"It has evolved because of more issues-- private property protection and quality of life are things that interest all of us, and we all live here and drink the water, and we've made that clear before, those are things that have to be safeguarded," Freeburg said.
Rick Glover, a Ridgway Township supervisor in his first term, suggested that county officials did not have to pass the provision in Pa. Act 13 of 2012 allowing for the collection of gas well impact fees, a notion that Elk County Solicitor Tom Wagner agreed with.
"The county does not need to adopt an ordinance imposing a well fee-- while in fact the county has done that, although it could be revoked-- but the issues that [Glover] is raising has more to do with land and use regulations than with the impact fees," Wagner said. "Act 13, there are a number of different sections to it, but one of those sections deals with imposing the impact fees. That is what the county commissioners acted on at their last board meeting."
According to Wagner, there is a lengthy section that deals with the regulation of oil and gas activities.
"The county has no authority to regulate oil and gas activities-- the county doesn't do zoning-- not that [Glover's] positions are unimportant-- they are important," Wagner said. "[Glover] is approaching the wrong people-- if you're going to encourage regulation of oil and gas uses, then really the approach ought to be made to the individual municipalities because they're the ones that have the authority under both the municipality's planning code and the zoning laws, and under this Act 13-- they're the ones with the ability to do whatever the regulations are.
"I'm not saying that the Act is correct or clear, but the county commissioners really can't do anything about this."
Fran Gustafson, a Jay Township supervisor, said officials are torn between the much-needed money and their constituents.
"If we go against any of this, then we don't get any money out of this at all, and our townships need this money but I don't want to sell our people out, whether it be 500 feet or 1,000 feet from our watershed," Gustafson said. "Send this back, tell them to get some distance on the watershed and the house; I don't care if they drill uphill and I hope they find millions of gallons of gas or whatever they're finding, but send it back."
While thankful for the input from the township supervisors, Freeburg voiced his displeasure with the tardiness of the arguments, as commissioners met all the legal requirements in advertising the proposed ordinance that was passed two weeks ago without protest.
"We had no comments except positive ones-- 'Please pass that ordinance'-- we actually had quite a few," Freeburg said. "We've had no organized concerns to my knowledge and no negative comments at all until now, two weeks later, and that's kind of frustrating.
"We also have monthly Marcellus Shale task force meetings in this very room, a group comprised of many different folks from all facets-- industry representatives, elected officials, and we've had quite a bit of opportunities for public participation besides the legal requirements, which were published and gone through."
In terms of changing the statutes, Wagner suggested the supervisors had chosen the wrong venue and instead must focus their attention on the legislators.
"If you want to do that effectively, you have to work through organizations that have some clout-- the individual county commissioners don't really have a lot of clout," Wagner said. "The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors [PSATS], on the other hand, they do."
Glover indicated Tuesday morning that he had been in contact with PSATS officials who suggested that "there is an out."
"Don't accept the impact fees. Now we've got numbers to work with," Glover said. "The argument of the oil industry has always been the costs, but now we've got numbers. There are costs there and if they put in wells, it's going to cost them-- we can hire hydrologists to come in and check everything-- the top 10 percent is $110,000 a year and in a $1 trillion industry, $110,000 is nothing.
"Then the hydrologists can come in and say, 'Hey, if you drill here then you're going to screw up Big Mill Creek.' They'll know where it's going in and it'll be monitored where they drill. If there is a leak coming through, we get a casing and it's done right there. We'll see it well before it gets out of the ground and now we'd have the money."
However, Jodi Foster, community and economic development coordinator for the county's planning department, suggested that hydrologists are already involved in the county's source water protection plan.
"That's fine, but they're not going to drill water wells around each one of the drills-- just because they're involved doesn't mean they're going to do it," Glover said. "There is a huge cost in all of this. I'm a township supervisor, I understand this source water protection plan, I'm involved with it. I understand it's being checked when it comes out, you have the monitors out and everything, but I want you to not have to check it.
"You could have it all set up before they drill; when they drill, if the accident is there, there it is. It's right in front of you and there is no reason to wait for it to get into the creek, right? Is that a plus thing or not, or do you not like that? I was here, if you remember I was here prior, and you fed me the same lies."
While no official decisions were made, Freeburg called the conversation a "good discussion" and encouraged Glover and Gustafson to attend the next task force meeting, reportedly April 9 at 10 a.m. in Conference Room No. 2 of the Elk County Courthouse Annex. No decision was made regarding possibly rescinding the two-week-old ordinance either.
Pick up a copy of the Wednesday, March 21, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.
Elk County Board of Commissioners
When: Tuesday, April 3
Where: Conference Room No. 2, Courthouse Annex
Time: 10 a.m.