When Lycoming County implemented its zoning ordinance in 1991, the Marcellus Shale wasn’t even a blip on its radar screen.
Now it almost covers the entire screen and the zoning ordinance is being updated accordingly.
On Feb. 10, the county commissioners will host a public hearing regarding the changes and may vote to adopt them during the meeting, said Clifford A. Kanz, development services supervisor for the county Department of Planning and Community Development.
Work on amending the ordinance actually began about two years ago, said planning department Director Kurt Hausammann Jr.
The county chose to delay action on the amendments until the courts clarified the scope in which local governments could regulate the gas industry, he said.
“The most recent Commonwealth Court decision said you can regulate traditional zoning issues pertaining to the gas industry,” Hausammann said. “That means setbacks, buffer yards, lighting, noise, dust and what zoning districts the use is permitted in.
“What it comes down to is through local zoning, you can regulate the ‘where’ of the gas industry, but you can’t regulate the ‘how’,” he said. “That means you can determine where it can go in your municipality, but you can’t tell them how to do it.”
Zoning also cannot circumvent federal and state regulations, such as those dealing with air quality, Hausammann said.
According to Kanz, the county ordinance does not actually apply to the entire county. It applies to the 17 rural municipalities that are part of the county Zoning Partnership.
“Any municipality in the county that is without its own zoning ordinance is part of the partnership,” Hausammann said. “We enforce the county ordinance in those municipalities.”
There are benefits to being part of the partnership, Kanz said. Municipalities with their own zoning ordinance must provide for all types of uses, including industrial, commercial, residential and agriculture.
Partnership municipalities do not have to do that, as long as the use is provided for by one of the other municipalities in the partnership.
“For example, Moreland Township is zoned entirely for agriculture but because other municipalities in the partnership have commercial, industrial and residential uses provided, Moreland Township doesn’t need to provide for those uses,” Hausammann said.
The proposed ordinance contains a table that lists gas industry uses such as staging area; compressor, processing and metering facility; water reuse storage facility; and oil and gas development, and whether those uses are permitted, not permitted or permitted by special exception in those districts.
For example, a staging areas – places where pipe and other materials and equipment are stored – and compressor, processing and metering facilities are permitted in agriculture, resource protection, countryside and rural center zoning districts, permitted by special exception in suburban and urban zoning districts, and not permitted in neighborhood preservation districts.
Oil and gas development is permitted in agriculture, resource protection, countryside and urban zoning districts, permitted by special exception in suburban districts and not permitted in rural center and neighborhood preservation districts.
Hausammann said it makes sense to ban gas drilling activities in the latter two areas, which contain concentrations of homes on small lots in rural settings. Waterville and Ralston are in those districts.
“Think about what a five-acre well pad would do for the character of Waterville if a well pad were put in the middle of it,” Hausammann said. “It wouldn’t fit.”
Some areas where gas drilling, staging areas and water reuse storage facilities are allowed do not allow other types of industrial uses.
For example, well drilling pads, staging facilities, compressor stations and water storage facilities are allowed in agriculture zones, but light and heavy industry are not allowed in those zones. Light industry is permitted only in industrial zones and heavy industry is permitted in industrial zones by special exception.
“It makes no sense to say (gas drilling activity) is permitted only in industrial districts because that may not be where the resource is,” Hausammann said. “You have to be realistic when you’re preparing an ordinance like this.”
Hausammann said the county zoning ordinance was designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents. He said the proposed amendments do that.
He said the amendments fairly balance the needs of the industry and need to protect the quality of life of county residents.
“The amendments shouldn’t be looked at as pro-gas,” Kanz said. “They should be looked at as even-handed.”
The amendments were reviewed by the Lycoming County Community Gas Drilling Task Force, which is chaired by Commissioner Rebecca A. Burke, and given the seal of approval by that organization, he said.
The county Planning Commission also reviewed them and have recommended they be adopted.