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Alert: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reverses Approval of Oil and Gas Well on Narrow Grounds

In Gorsline, Court Declines to Rule on Broader Issue of Compatibility With Uses in Residential and Agricultural Zoning Districts, but Suggests that Municipalities May Permit Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling in any and all Zoning Districts

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court published its long-awaited opinion in Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township on June 1, 2018.  Although the majority reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision affirming the granting of a conditional use for an unconventional natural gas well pad, it did so in a narrow holding, finding that Inflection Energy, LLC (Inflection) did not present enough evidence before the Fairfield Township (Township) Board of Supervisors (Board) establishing that its proposed unconventional gas well pad was similar to other uses allowed in the Township’s  Residential-Agricultural Zoning District (R-A District).  Unlike most zoning ordinances, the Township’s zoning ordinance did not specifically authorize oil and gas wells.  Instead, Inflection had relied upon a “savings clause,” which allowed uses “similar to” the other uses specifically allowed in the R-A District.

Despite headlines and press releases touting the Gorsline decision as a wholesale rejection of oil and gas development in residential and agricultural zoning districts, its ruling was much more limited.  In fact, language in both the Gorsline majority and dissenting opinions largely rejects the post-Robinson Township assertion of many shale gas opponents that natural gas wells must be relegated to industrial zoning districts and are fundamentally incompatible with residential or agricultural zoning districts.

Please read more about the decision in this alert.