Pa. Appeals Court Strikes Down Act 13 Natural Gas Drilling Law as Unconstitutional

In a 4-3 decision issued today in Robinson Township, et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (284 MD 2012), the Commonwealth Court struck down as unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s “Act 13”, a law that provided that natural gas well drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in every zoning district, including residential districts.  In its 54-page opinion, the Court stated:

Because the changes required by [the law, at 58 Pa. C.S. §3304] do not serve the police power purpose of the local zoning ordinances, relating to consistent and compatible uses in the enumerated districts of a comprehensive zoning plan, any action by the local municipality required by the provisions of Act 13 would violate substantive due process as not in furtherance of its zoning police power. Consequently, the Commonwealth’s preliminary objections to Counts I, II and III are overruled.  

Because 58 Pa. C.S. §3304 requires all oil and gas operations in all zoning districts, including residential districts, as a matter of law, we hold that 58 Pa. C.S. §3304 violates substantive due process because it allows incompatible uses in zoning districts and does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of the neighborhood, and makes irrational classifications. Accordingly we grant Petitioners’ Motion for Summary Relief, declare 58 Pa C.S. §3304 unconstitutional and null and void, and permanently enjoin the Commonwealth from enforcing it.

This decision may have impacts which go beyond natural gas drilling. In particular, other statutory provisions purport to require municipalities to allow timbering in every municipal zoning district. We’ll offer some further thoughts on the implications of this decision in a future blog. In the meantime, those interested in reading the opinion can find it on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s website here.

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