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The PA State Supreme Court announced its long-awaited decision in Gorsline et al. v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township v. Inflection Energy LLC et al., earlier this month, which completes a multi-year journey between PennFuture and its clients, Brian and Dawn Gorsline, and their neighbors, Paul and Michele Batkowski.
PennFuture began representing the Gorslines and Batkowskis in January 2014, when its lawyers appealed a decision by Fairfield Township to issue Inflection Energy a conditional use permit for operation of a shale gas well pad in the residential portion of the municipality’s R-A (Residential-Agricultural) zoning district.
To issue the permit, the Township’s ordinance required that it conclude that an industrial shale gas well pad was “similar to and compatible with” other uses allowed in the R-A district. The appeal focused on the company’s failure to meet that standard, and that issuing the permit violated our clients’ constitutional rights.
The appeal was heard in the Lycoming Court of Common Pleas by Judge Marc F. Lovecchio, who sided with PennFuture and overturned the Township’s decision. Recognizing that there were important constitutional issues at play, Judge Lovecchio concluded that Inflection had failed to put on adequate evidence at the local hearing to justify issuance of the permit.
The Township and Inflection appealed that ruling to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court held that the Township was justified in issuing the permit because the ordinance allows “public service facilities” in all of its zoned districts, and an industrial shale gas well pad was similar to a “public service facility.” The Court had previously used this rationale in another case to allow a compressor station to be located in a light industrial zoned district.
This case, then, if allowed to stand, would have constituted an outrageous expansion of this rationale that would have swallowed any need for townships to affirmatively regulate where shale gas development would be allowed. Instead of fulfilling the township’s obligations under Article I, Section 27 in choosing where to locate all of the various impacts associated with this vast industry, townships would have been free to issue ad hoc approvals for well pads, processing plants and compressor stations in any of its zoned districts under the ruse that the land use was similar to a “public service facility.”
PennFuture appealed and the Commonwealth Court’s decision went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In its appeal, PennFuture argued that there were four different ways in which the Commonwealth Court made the wrong decision, including that the decision violated Article I, Section 27 of the Constitution and our clients' substantive due process rights.
The Supreme Court did not decide the case on the broader constitutional arguments that we made, but did agree with our other three arguments. The Court held that:
Even though the Court did not decide the case on constitutional bases, the decision established a number of important points.
PennFuture’s success in this case is not just a long-awaited win for our clients, but a win for concerned residents across the Commonwealth.