LOCK HAVEN - Three attorneys and a judge gathered Tuesday to deal with any outstanding issues connected to a legal appeal involving a company's efforts to draw hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the Susquehanna River in Chapman Township to support natural gas drilling.
The conference was designed to ensure Clinton County President Judge J. Michael Williamson has a complete record before he makes a ruling on Anadarko Petroleum Corp.'s appeal of a township zoning board's denial of its request to withdraw water from the river near Hyner.
Anadarko had sought the special exception to pump up to 720,000 gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna River near the Gold Star Mothers Bridge in an area zoned Forest and Agricultural District.
The request was turned down in late May by the Chapman Township Zoning Hearing Board after a series of hearings that spanned three months.
The zoning board's written opinion states its members believe the proposed water-withdrawal operation would cause a travel hazard on Route 120 and would negatively impact that area's environment and property values.
Anadarko responded with a legal appeal in late June, calling the decision "arbitrary, capricious (and)... an abuse of discretion and an error of law."
Judge Williamson said conferences like the one held Tuesday were usually conducted in chambers, but he decided to hold the session in open court because of the high amount of public interest in the case.
The session was used to verify the completeness of the record and uncover any remaining issues that might hamper the progress toward a final determination.
One of those issues was a petition filed by attorney Stephen C. Smith, acting on behalf of the zoning hearing board, to have Judge Williamson excuse himself from hearing the case.
Smith noted Williamson has what might be considered a conflict of interest in that he has a lease on his lands to another natural gas company, a fact that might create a vested interest in the outcome of the lawsuit.
Documents filed at the county courthouse show an oil-and-gas lease between Williamson and Chesapeake Appalachia of Charleston, W.Va., is effective from April 24, 2008 for a period of seven years. It involves three parcels Williamson has leased: 58.8 acres in Castanea Township, and two parcels of 3.14 acres and 22.89 acres, respectively, in Dunnstable Township. The seven-year lease sets the amount of $5 per acre per year, plus a 15 percent royalty from any gas or oil production at those sites, according to the agreement.
"Different township ... different zoning ordinance ... different company ... different land," Judge Williamson said.
"I've given this a great deal of consideration since the petition was filed seven or eight days ago, and I fail to see how I could personally be effected by this," Judge Williamson said. "It seems to me the only conceivable (benefit) would be that drawing water at Chapman Township will lower the water behind my house ... which given (the history of flooding) might not be a bad idea."
Williamson gave the attorneys five days to submit written arguments pro and con and said he would make a decision on recusal after that.
The hearing board denial noted Anadarko's request failed to set forth the true legal owner of the property in question, and the company failed to show any agreement with the landowner, Bob Maguire.
That claim prompted Anadarko attorney Timothy Schoonover to request the court allow additional testimony to establish clear ownership of the land.
Judge Williamson said if he deems no additional testimony is required, he will review the record and issue an opinion.
The judge did not set a timetable for a final decision, however, and the record - which includes transcripts of every hearing, meeting minutes, documents, letters, maps and other written material - is rather lengthy.
The operation is proposed for a triangular-shaped, 2.7-acre plot next to Route 120 owned by Maguire, who entered into an easement agreement with Anadarko last July. The company said it only plans to use .891 of an acre for the operation, which would include a paved parking area.
There was also some question as to whether the written opinion from Smith constituted an "official" and legal denial after Judge Williamson raised that issue.
The judge said he searched the record and could fine no signed, documented decision by the zoning board members, but Smith, Schoonover and Township Solicitor Frank Miceli agreed the solicitor's letter will suffice.