Your Role in the Process
If you are concerned about shale gas development in your community, you should attend your municipality’s regularly scheduled meetings for Board of Supervisors/Commissioners/Council and the Zoning and Planning Boards. Before doing so, you should review your township and county ordinances to determine what is permitted or restricted in each specific zone. If you live in Pennsylvania, click here to view a map of counties and municipalities that have zoning in PA. In Pennsylvania, towns with no zoning rules can still limit gas development, but must do so through specific ordinances.
For more information about how to locate your ordinance or to get more involved in local zoning issues, please see Mountain Watershed Association (MWA)’s Zoning Map, which includes zoning information for 12 counties in Southwest Pennsylvania on an interactive map.The tool allows you to determine whether your community has zoning, find links to zoning ordinances and oil and gas ordinances, and view comprehensive plans if available from the municipality. The resource also includes contact information for the municipal offices in Southwest PA so that residents can send their questions, comments and concerns.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is responsible for developing many of the rules and regulations that cover environmental protections related to shale gas development. State senators and representatives also have power to develop or revise laws that affect shale gas development. In Pennsylvania, bills passed by the General Assembly are typically designed to prevent or considerably slow down environmental protections developed by DEP. Look up your state legislators here to figure out their position on natural gas development near schools. You can also search here to find out if they have accepted political donations from the oil and gas industry, which would cause them to be more biased in industry’s favor. Consider scheduling a meeting with them to voice your opinions about shale gas development in your community. Most importantly, remember to vote for candidates who are most likely to represent your interests.
Role of Local Government
In Pennsylvania, municipalities have the power to decide where shale gas development can occur through local zoning and diminish the impacts using land use requirements. Municipalities tailor their zoning and land use ordinances to local needs and long-term goals. Local leaders should use these tools to separate incompatible uses in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of residents. Municipalities have a role to play in decisions around shale gas infrastructure. Regularly scheduled meetings are held to discuss zoning and proposed projects.
To better understand the rules municipalities must follow, click here to view the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code (MPC). Please see “Defending the Environmental Rights of Pennsylvania Communities from Shale Gas Development” with more information on this subject by Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
Municipal Governing Boards
Board of Supervisors/Commissioners/Council
The governing board with the most power at the local level is known as the Board of Supervisors/ Commissioners/ Council members, depending on your local governmental structure. These elected boards are the executive and legislative bodies for their municipality, setting policy, enacting ordinances and resolutions, adopting budgets, and levying taxes. Board members are recipients of complaints, ideas, and suggestions and work to ensure federal, state, county, and municipal requirements are fulfilled and that the municipality is able to operate smoothly.
The boards have the most control over where fracking can occur in a municipality because the boards vote on new or revised zoning ordinances. There are certain rules that local government must follow to ensure that their decision-making is done in a public and transparent way. One such law in Pennsylvania is known as the Sunshine Act, which requires public agencies to make certain meetings and hearings open to the public and to ensure that documentation of the meetings are public record. Boards and other public agencies are required to record meeting minutes, which must be made available to the public. This public record is important because it is your way of knowing what your municipality is doing.
Planning and Zoning Boards
Planning commissions make non-binding recommendations on proposed zoning amendments regarding subdivisions, land development, zoning changes, and commercial site development plans. These recommendations then go to the higher governing board (commissioners, supervisors, or council members) for a final vote. While this board may have the power of influence, it does not make any final decisions. In some townships, the planning commission must be consulted on land use and planning decisions.
Zoning hearing boards are made up of appointed residents of the town. The board members usually have experience or skills that enable them to make decisions about construction and development permits. When making decisions, zoning hearing boards hold quasi-judicial hearings. These hearings are recorded by a court reporter, decisions are binding, and often the proceedings are run by an attorney for the board. Because zoning hearing boards decide whether to issue certain zoning permits and hear challenges to zoning ordinances, boards can have a significant amount of power over shale gas development. Members of both zoning hearing boards and planning commissions are appointed by the municipality’s main governing board. Zoning hearing board decisions can be appealed at the county and state level by community members or groups/organizations that become a party to the proceedings. Individuals wishing to appeal should talk with an attorney and the zoning board solicitor before proceeding.
County Governing Boards
A county commission (also known as a board of county commissioners) is a group of elected officials charged with administering the county government. County commissions are usually made up of three or more individuals. The county is in most cases similarly structured to municipalities, with county commissioners and a planning commission. Generally, county positions hold a high degree of political power, and county commissioners are often reluctant to get involved in municipal matters because municipalities are the final decision-makers on local matters.
County Planning/Zoning Boards
Counties also have planning and zoning boards similar to local government boards, but with different roles. The role of the county planning and zoning departments is to support the local municipalities in maintaining their vision for their community and ensuring that the county and state laws are followed. In Pennsylvania, County Planning/Zoning Boards administer land use regulations through the county’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO). For more information on the SALDOs, click here.
B: Public Participation in
Local & State Government
Once you’ve informed yourself about shale gas development, you are in a good position to get involved at any level of government as an individual. This section provides information about the roles of local government bodies as well as the state’s authority over shale gas development and your ability to get involved in the process.