Robinson Township officials Thursday passed amendments to the zoning ordinance that in some ways will make it easier for Marcellus Shale companies to do business there.
Immediately after a public hearing was held on the topic, the board voted 2-1 to change the process for considering oil and natural gas applications from a special exception process to a permitted use or conditional use process, depending on the district.
In effect, power changes hands from the zoning board to the board of supervisors for all conditional use applications in commercial and special conservation districts. Supervisors can set reasonable conditions on those applications.
For any proposed drilling activity in the interchange business development district, industrial district, rural residential district or agricultural district, companies must meet a set of uniform criteria outlined by the permitted use process. Public hearings for these applications are not required.
In addition to those changes, the board banned drilling in the R-1B and R-2 residential districts, but acknowledged that drilling activity in those areas was unlikely because of the lack of open land.
“They were being treated hostile before,” Chairman Rodger Kendall said of the previous board’s relationship with the natural gas industry, “and we’re willing to work with any industry or residential development.
You can’t grow a township by chasing everybody out.”
Rodger Kendall and Vice Chairman Steve Duran expressed their intent to change the zoning ordinance after it was revamped by the outgoing board in December. Supervisor Mark Brositz, the only official who remained on the board, voted against the zoning changes proposed by Kendall and Duran.
Only a handful of people spoke at Thursday’s public hearing, which was a smaller turnout than the first hearing on the topic in June.
Michael Oliverio, attorney for former board Chairman Brian Coppola and his wife, Susan, said the proposed zoning changes would move Robinson Township backwards. He said the zoning amendments passed by the previous board – of which his client was a member – were perfectly in line with the Act 13 decision that gave power back to municipal zoning boards to decide where drilling activity should occur.
He said the amendment ultimately passed by the current board “throws away that process entirely and makes oil and gas development a mix-and-match process based upon each individual type of zoning district.”
Brenda Vance, a township resident, presented a petition against the zoning changes that was signed by 281 residents.
Duran said he had already seen a copy of the petition and felt it was misleading, so he spent hours knocking on doors and talking to residents about the proposed changes.
In her public comment, Vance said she wanted the zoning board to continue to make decisions on oil and gas applications. She also questioned the ethics of Duran and Kendall, who are both leaseholders.
“The total decision should not be under permitted use and in the hands of two men whose families will benefit so greatly from the outcome,” Vance said.
Township solicitor Gretchen Moore said there is likely no conflict of interest that would prevent Duran and Kendall from voting, but if there were a conflict, it would be negated by an exception in the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.
Greg Kobulnicky, managing partner of Moore Park LP, said he approved of the zoning amendments and said he believes it will spur development in the township.
“There’s a lot in this ordinance that encourages good stewardship of the environment while allowing us to have conversations to say where natural gas development will take place most appropriately in a township,” Kobulnicky said. “When you think about it, it allows for what the process in Pennsylvania on a small level of government should be for people to capture opportunity.”