Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill famously declared that “all politics is local.” You can take such a statement in a variety of ways, but there are some profound truths hidden in there.
The 2013 municipal primary election is Tuesday and voter turnout is expected to be extremely low. If not for the sea of campaign signs littering landscapes everywhere, most people may not even know which offices are up for election.
All federal offices, such as president and members of Congress run in even-numbered years, along with statewide offices like governor and the state Legislature. In the odd-numbered years, local offices such as borough council, township supervisor, school board director, along with countywide row officers and judges are elected.
Most people don’t seem to care a whole lot about local elections unless they personally know the candidate. That isn’t just my opinion; the voter turnout numbers speak for themselves. It’s really unfortunate, because so many of these races have a far greater impact than most people imagine.
With natural gas drilling of the Marcellus Shale and the infrastructure that comes with it, such as pipelines and processing plants, local government is more important now than ever. It’s really interesting, because party affiliations are often thrown out the window when it comes to the issue of what role, if any, local government should play in natural gas development. Some of the most progressive Democrats and some of the most conservative Republicans, people who may not agree on much of anything, are often in lockstep in the desire to avoid a big-government takeover of our local property rights.
I’ve talked a lot about Act 13, the state law passed last year that pretty much took away the rights of local municipalities to use zoning to help ensure natural gas development is consistent and safe. A group of municipalities, including Mt. Pleasant, Cecil, Robinson and South Fayette townships, challenged Act 13 in court, with attorneys taking the case pro bono, at no cost whatsoever to taxpayers. These townships are all very different, but they share one critical characteristic. The elected township supervisors, both Republicans and Democrats, had the guts to stand up and say they believed the people living locally in a community should have more say about some things than Gov. Tom Corbett and the Harrisburg bureaucracy of the Department of Environmental Protection and the Public Utilities Commission.
None of these municipalities tried to ban drilling; they just wanted to protect the home and business owners in the community from poor planning and a lack of accountability. The recent example of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, gave us all a grim reminder of what happens when local zoning is ignored. There is a reason some industries shouldn’t be within a stone’s throw of your kid’s school, your church or your hospital, and the supervisors in these communities decided it was important enough to stand up and fight for.
And guess what? Despite the baseless pessimism of a handful of naysayers and a never-ending string of nuisance lawsuits filed by a handful of drilling companies intent on behaving like stubborn children, the municipalities are actually winning.
The Commonwealth Court ruled the zoning preemptions of Act 13 are unconstitutional, so the law has not gone into effect. That could all change depending on what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does, and will likely be impacted in a huge way based on whether Corbett tries to appoint a justice to replace Joan Orie Melvin who will uphold Act 13, which could wreak havoc on our region. Concerns about your property values potentially taking a nosedive are very real without fair zoning to define what our communities should be.
Despite the never-ending push by the public relations propaganda wing of the gas industry to portray themselves as victims, zoning laws aren’t designed to punish anyone; they’re designed to protect people and give them some certainty. If you bought a house in a residential area, you made that very large purchase with a basic understanding of what could be built around you and your family; to change the rules in the middle of the game infringes on our fundamental Constitutional right to enjoy our private property.
Like I’ve learned from about two dozen commercials, drilling is just the beginning. We’re looking at a massive buildup of pipelines and compressor stations as the natural gas industry moves toward exporting our gas to foreign countries. We need to decide right now how we want that to look. Do we want local officials who will ask the tough but fair questions and demand accountability to protect the people and property of the community, or do we want eager enablers who are content to stick their heads in the frac sand and blindly repeat slick but largely untrue talking points?
You can support the responsible development of Marcellus Shale while still maintaining local zoning. Even the drilling nirvana of Texas allows local communities to use zoning to control natural gas production, so let’s not act as though this is some revolutionary concept. The gas industry has enough cheerleaders in government; what we need are some fair and objective referees.
Decisions are made by those that show up. Ask questions, demand answers and go vote on May 21. Now more than ever, it really matters.
Jesse White is a representative from Pennsylvania’s 46th Legislative District.