On Sept. 14, 2015, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a unanimous decision in Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township
, reversing the decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County that denied conditional use approval for the construction and operation of a natural gas well. In doing so, the Commonwealth Court found that the trial court erred in holding 1) that the use was not similar to other uses permitted in the Residential Agriculture (RA) District; and 2) that the use conflicted with the general purpose of the zoning ordinance. Further, the Commonwealth Court found there was no probative evidence offered to show that the use would present a detriment to the health and safety of the neighborhood.
By way of background, Inflection Energy applied for a conditional use permit to build and operate a natural gas well on land leased from Donald and Eleanor Shaheen that was located in Fairfield Township’s RA District. Because the township’s zoning ordinance did not specifically authorize natural gas wells, Inflection was required, under the ordinance’s “savings clause,” to prove that the proposed use was consistent with the permitted uses in the zoning district and with public health and safety.
After two public hearings, the Board of Supervisors found that Inflection satisfied the standards for conditional use under the zoning ordinance, approving the application subject to 14 conditions. While neighboring landowners expressed concerns about property values and health and safety at the hearings, the board held that they did not present any evidence to substantiate their concerns, and therefore did not rebut the presumption that the use was consistent with the general welfare and safety of the public.
The neighboring landowners appealed the decision. The trial court, citing to testimony regarding increased truck traffic and noise, reversed the board’s grant of conditional use, stating that the proposed use was not compatible with other uses in the RA District, which is intended for homes and farming. The trial court also held that Inflection did not prove that its proposed use would not be detrimental to public health, safety, and the welfare of the neighborhood.
In reversing that order, the Commonwealth Court criticized the trial court for improperly acting as fact-finder and for “substitut[ing] its credibility determinations for those of the Board.” The Commonwealth Court noted that the zoning ordinance allows a wide range of conditional uses in the RA District and expressly allows for a public service facility, which is similar to the proposed well. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court found that Inflection satisfied the requirement that the proposed use be “similar to and compatible with other uses permitted in the zone where the subject property is located,” and that the evidence presented in support of this requirement was in no way rebutted. The Commonwealth Court further held that Inflection met its burden of showing that the proposed use did not “conflict with the general purpose of the zoning ordinance,” the evidence of which it also found to be uncontradicted.
The Commonwealth Court also stated that the trial court erred in focusing on truck deliveries, as “zoning regulates the use
of land and not the particulars of development and construction.” On the issue of health and safety, it found that Inflection presented expert testimony on the issue, which the board accepted, while the neighboring landowners presented no evidence to the contrary, nor could they cite to any in the record. The Commonwealth Court accepted the board’s finding that a “speculation of possible harms” was insufficient to show that the proposed natural gas well would be detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the neighborhood. For these reasons, the Commonwealth Court reversed the order of the trial court.
Burleson LLP’s Land Use Practice has been successful in meeting such municipal obstacles, including working with energy companies and townships to amend antiquated ordinances. We are available to counsel you on your next land use matter. Please contact Partner Michael Vennum
or Senior Counsel Jeanette Oliver