Supreme Court rulings to watch

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The year is still brand-spanking new and packed with uncertainties, but stash this in the bank – two decisions will be coming from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sometime in 2013 that will have a significant impact on Washington County residents.


First, the commonwealth’s highest court will weigh in on the constitutionality of the zoning provisions of Act 13, the oil and gas drilling law put on the books early last year. Designed to create statewide standards for the extraction of oil and natural gas and give the burgeoning energy industry certainty and uniformity, it raised the hackles of many communities across the state. They argued that the zoning provisions of Act 13 robbed them of their land-use and planning rights, and five of those communities – Cecil, Robinson, Mt. Pleasant and Peters townships in Washington County, and South Fayette Township, just over the line in Allegheny County – were plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court, asking that the zoning provisions be stricken.


The court ruled in their favor in July, but the state appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October when it was in session in Pittsburgh. We hope the Supreme Court upholds the Commonwealth Court decision.


As we have stated previously, we support natural gas drilling in the region and the economic benefits it provides. But we believe it should be done safely, with the health and safety of residents at the top of the list of concerns. Local elected officials are the best situated to make these determinations.


The Supreme Court will also likely be left to decide whether a property reassessment can move forward in Washington County. At the beginning of December, Commonwealth Court said the county had to move forward with a reassessment, which would be its first in more than 30 years. A reassessment has been atop the wish lists of officials from the Washington and McGuffey school districts, which argue that commercial and industrial properties that have emerged in the county over the last three decades are being undertaxed, while many residential property owners are being overtaxed, and will see a reduction in their tax bills if a reassessment is allowed to go forward.


The county has not been eager for a reassessment to happen. It wouldn’t be too far off base to say that you’re likely to find more enthusiasm among patients awaiting a colonoscopy. Commissioners have contended, among other things, that the sweat that would be poured into a reassessment would be squandered if long-promised property tax reform emerges from Harrisburg. But waiting for property tax reform to come out of Harrisburg seems about as wise as waiting for Godot or the Great Pumpkin to appear. So the county really doesn’t have a convincing rationale to put off a reassessment much longer. Rather than waste more time and taxpayer dollars on yet more legal maneuvering, the county should show the white flag and let a reassessment go forward.


We also think it would make sense if Pennsylvania followed neighbors like Ohio and Maryland and adopted a statewide timetable for reassessments, eliminating the need for sound and fury like this in Washington County and other communities.


Although it sometimes seems that judicial decisions are faraway abstractions that affect somebody else, these two – whenever they arrive – will definitely hit home.


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