LOCK HAVEN - The court has taken the law into its own hands.
Clinton County President Judge J. Michael Williamson on Tuesday ordered the approval of a water-extraction operation along the Susquehanna River at Hyner to support gas drilling after members of the Chapman Township Zoning Hearing Board quit in an act of defiance against the judge.
The order means the operation can proceed under a new zoning exception, but with limitations and stipulations.
The move comes five days after all three zoning board members resigned just before a scheduled hearing on the matter, leaving many speechless and officials with little choice but to adjourn the hearing because there was no quorum.
After three months and several hearings on the request by Anadarko E&PA. Co. LP for a special exception to withdraw up to 720,000 gallons of water daily from the river just below Hyner View, board in May denied the request, saying it would cause a safety hazard on Route 120, negatively impact the environment and property values.
On Aug. 9, Judge Williamson reversed that decision and ordered the board to approve the request with several conditions within 20 days.
But board Chairman Pete Rathmell, Alice Tarr and John Drake instead stepped down last Thursday just before the hearing, putting the matter back in Judge Williamson's hands.
In his order handed down Tuesday, Judge Williamson noted "no hearing was held because the three members of the zoning hearing board who issued the original decision resigned their positions within minutes of the beginning of the public hearing, to the inconvenience of the parties and at a significant expense to the taxpayers of Chapman Township."
"Twenty days having passed and the Zoning Hearing Board of Chapman Township having taken no action ... the court... does hereby order and decree that the application for special exception filed by Anadarko E&P Co. LP is approved and a special exception granted subject to the stipulations of the parties filed Aug. 30."
Those stipulations are the same as recommended by Judge Williamson when rendering his initial verdict last month, with only one change: Lessening the number of vehicles capable of storing or hauling water on the site at one time from seven to five. It also includes language that there be no other outdoor storage of materials or supplies.
Township Solicitor Frank Miceli said the lowering of the number and the added stipulation that there be no oudoor storage was at the request of the township.
"They were worried it not turn into a storage facility and is only intended to be a water-withdrawal facility, not a place to store equipment," he said.
Other stipulatioins are:
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.
Reached by The Express, Supervisor George Machak said he expected Tuesday's ruling by Judge Williamson.
"The zoning board had their mind made up before they started the hearing," he said.
Supervision Charles Rossel declined comment, saying he would rather wait to until supervisors' Sept. 7 meeting.
Supervisor Chairman Tim Horner is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Mary Wolf, government relations advisor for Anadarko, said the decision is "hugely beneficial" to both the township and Anadarko.
"The resolution with the various accommodations allows us to continue to safely develop our natural gas resources and, most of all, it helps us reduce truck traffic and the associated emissions with that, which was our number one goal, along with the safety of the community," she said. "We are appreciative of the time and consideration the court and Chapman Township gave to our request."
The supervisors are still expected to name replacements to the zoning hearing board. Regular member Dennis Trout was not available for the Anadarko hearings - thus, Drake was filling in for him - but can rejoin the board, while alternate Greg Lucas may be named a full member by supervisors on Tuesday night.
The property next to Gold Star Mothers Bridge is owned by Bob Maguire and would be leased by Anadarko. Anadarko has secured a permit from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to withdraw water from the river - with limitations - to hydrofracture its gas wells on leased forestland in Sproul State Forest. The township planning commission previously recommended the zoning change to allow the pumping, but with conditions.