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Pa. Commonwealth Court Reverses Controversial Lycoming County Decision

Earlier today, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a unanimous decision in the much-anticipated case of Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township, reversing the decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County. In reversing the lower court, the Commonwealth Court upheld Fairfield Township’s decision to grant conditional use approval to Inflection Energy, LLC for an unconventional well pad. This case is significant for several reasons. First, the Commonwealth Court made it clear that it is insufficient for objectors to sustain their burden by merely stating concerns or asking questions of the developer’s expert witnesses. Instead, they must present evidence to substantiate those concerns. Second, the Commonwealth Court criticized the lower court for making its own findings of fact when it did not take additional evidence and where the municipality made its own findings of fact. Third, the Commonwealth Court recognized that the lower court erred by focusing on truck deliveries during the construction phase of the project because zoning regulates the use of land and not the particulars of development and construction. Finally, the objectors attempted to raise issues based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Robinson Township decision, arguing that natural gas development is an industrial use that is per se incompatible with a residential/agricultural zoning district and that approval of the natural gas development violated the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Commonwealth Court summarily rejected these two arguments and noted that, because the record supported the township’s determination that the proposed well pad was compatible with the permitted uses in the residential/agricultural district and the objectors presented no evidence of harm, the objectors’ claims were unsupported by the accepted evidence of record. This final point is especially significant because many anti-industry opponents cite both the lower court’s opinion and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s amicus brief from this case in other zoning proceedings as support for the now rejected view that oil and gas development must only occur in industrial zoning districts.