NORTH BEND - In a stunning move Thursday night, all three members of the Chapman Township Zoning Hearing Board resigned minutes before a special hearing to allow a natural gas company to withdraw hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily from the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
The move left most of the approximately two dozen people at the municipal building speechless, and further drags out the seemingly-endless process by Andarko E&PA Co. LP to acquire a special exception to withdraw up to 720,000 gallons of water daily from the river near Gold Star Mothers Bridge.
They sought, but the zoning hearing board denied, a special exception to the Agricultural-Forest District to allow the water-pumping and hauling operation. The property is owned by Bob Maguire and would be leased by Anadarko. The parties have secured a permit from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to withdraw water at the site, but with limitations. Also, the township planning commission previously recommended the operation be approved, but with limitations.
About 10 minutes after the scheduled 6 p.m. start to the hearing last night, township Solicitor Frank Miceli addressed the crowd, holding three letters in his hand.
The letters were, individually, resignations by board members Chairman John P. Rathmell Jr., Alice Tarr and John Drake, and each was turned in about a half-hour before the start of the hearing, leaving officials no chance to have alternates fill their places. Drake had been serving as an alternate for Dennis Trout.
"I've been doing this for 20 years never (have I seen something like this)," said board Solicitor Stephen Smith after the hearing.
The three were ordered by Clinton County President Judge J. Michael Williamson earlier this month to grant Anadarko the special exemption, saying the board's decision to deny the request in May was "arbitrary, capricious (and)... an abuse of discretion and error by law."
Instead of going against their wishes - and instead of being held in contempt of court - Rathmell, Tarr and Drake resigned their seats.
Smith said he met the three at Dremel's gas station at 5:30 p.m. and was handed three, sealed envelopes addressed to Miceli. Miceli opened the letters, which turned out to be resignations, mere moments before the scheduled 6 p.m. start, forcing the adjournment due to a lack of a quorum.
Tarr's letter said that, since she was being forced to go against the wishes of herself and the community - and due to the risk of environmental harm - "I can no longer serve and, therefore, resign my position as of 5:30 p.m."
Drake's letter stated, "After much thought, I cannot morally position our citizens' safety, health and welfare in jeopardy. Therefore, please be advised, as of Aug. 26, 2010, at 5:30 p.m., I am resigning as alternate of the Chapman Township Zoning Hearing Board."
Rathmell's letter gave no reason for his resignation.
Tarr and Rathmell did not return a message seeking comment. Drake's home number is unlisted.
"Nobody knew this was going to occur," leaving no time to find alternate members, Miceli said.
He noted that alternate Greg Lucas could have attended a few minutes late, but at least two members were needed for the hearing to begin.
"I think the only thing we can do is say there can't be a meeting tonight because there's no zoning hearing board members," he said, noting the township supervisors may appoint new members at their next meeting on Sept. 7.
Those interested in applying can contact Supervisors Tim Horner, Charles Rossell or George Machak
Micelli said he will inform Judge Williamson today of last night's inaction.
Williamson, he said, can either order the approval with conditions or again remand the issue back to the hearing board once one is in place.
Smith said he had an inkling one of the three members who he declined to identify would resign, but not all three, especially Tarr, who has spent 20-plus years on the board. The other two have only been on the board less than a year.
He said the three "maybe" didn't want to be held in contempt of court.
Instead, he theorized, the resignations were more acts of defiance toward Judge Williamson.
"I think they may have thumbed their nose at the judge. They weren't happy with the decision," Smith said.
Anadarko spokesperson Mary Wolf commended the board members for their concerns about the safety of the public, saying her firm will enact any measures either the board or the judge will impose to ensure the public's safety and "make the road safer than it is right now."
"We will just let the judicial process play out," she said. "That's the beauty of our democratic system, that we have the checks and balances with the judicial branch, with the citizens, the zoning hearing board and the planning commission. It worked. It's just taking a little longer."
After three hearings that spanned three months, the zoning hearing board unanimously denied Anadarko's request in May, saying the water-withdrawal operation will cause a travel hazard on Route 120 and negatively impact the environment and property values.
Earlier this month, Judge Williamson reversed that decision and ordered the board to approve the request with several conditions, including:
n No vehicles associated with the site shall be parked along Route 120 or by the Fish and Boat Commission access road from Route 120 to the river.
n The intake pipe shall be marked and flagged at least 50 feet in all directions with appropriate warning signs posted.
n Anadarko remains subject to SRBC regulations regarding river water levels during pumping activity.
n Anadarko will work with the township to request PennDOT install a traffic control device or sign to alert oncoming traffic near the entrance of the site of slow-moving trucks.
n No hauling of water will be scheduled or performed during the Hyner Mountain Challenge, the first weekend of fishing season, the three-day bear season and for a five-day period commencing the Monday after Thanksgiving Day of each year.
n The perimeter of the facility shall be fenced to a high of six feet with a gate regulating access.
n No more than seven vehicles capable of storing or hauling water shall be on the site at any time.