Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decides Act 13 Zoning Case

By Lawrence H. Baumiller

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that several critical provisions of Act 13, the General Assembly’s 2012 comprehensive update to the former Oil and Gas Act, are unconstitutional. In addition to invalidating a key section of Act 13 placing limits on the regulatory authority of local governments, the Court’s ruling also struck down a number of the legislation’s well location restrictions administered by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The Commonwealth Court, in a 4-3 decision [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], had declared the limits on the authority of local governments in Section 3304 unconstitutional on the grounds that they violated substantive due process, holding that it allowed incompatible uses in zoning districts, was inconsistent with municipal comprehensive plans, did not protect the interests of neighboring property owners, altered the character of the neighborhood, and made irrational classifications. The Supreme Court affirmed, albeit on different grounds. The majority opinion held that the limits on local governments violated Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly known as the “Environmental Rights Amendment.” The Supreme Court also invalidated Section 3303 of Act 13 [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], which provided that “environmental acts” are of statewide concern and preempt local regulation of oil and gas operations regulated by such acts. Sections 3305 through 3309 were enjoined to the extent that they enforced any section of Act 13 found to be invalid.

Additionally, the Commonwealth Court held Section 3215(b)(4) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], to be null and void because it gave the DEP insufficient guidance to waive setback requirements and allowed the DEP to make legislative policy judgment. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed. However, the Supreme Court held that all of Section 3215(b), including the setbacks from waters of the Commonwealth, is invalid because the waiver provision was not severable from the remainder of that section. The implications of this are unclear, as the DEP and well permit applicants now have no defined setbacks from surface waters or wetlands under Act 13 or any other statute. The Supreme Court also found that Section 3215(d), which allowed the DEP to consider comments from municipalities in its permitting decisions, were invalid and that Sections 3215(c) and (d) are invalid to the extent that they enforce Sections 3215(b) and (d).

For a more in-depth analysis, see Babst Calland’s recent Administrative Watch.

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