We're not surprised that Commonwealth Court has struck the portion of the state's new gas drilling law that essentially makes the drilling industry immune from local zoning regulations.
That portion of the law was a bold step by the legislature, and one we've been uncomfortable with from the start.
The legislature and the governor pressed for the section because they wanted the industry to be free from a patchwork of zoning regulations around the state. Instead, the law prescribes that natural gas exploration, drilling fluid treatment and transmission lines can be located in any locally designated zone - even residential - if certain set-back requirements are met.
What's troubling about the law are two basic concerns:
1. It undermines local control over land use and the protection of the health and safety of local residents as well as the protection of property values.
2. This law is an exemption for essentially a single industry. One might call it "spot-unzoning." The prohibition against spot-zoning - the designation of a relatively small parcel within one larger zone regulated by a a set of rules that are contrary to those for the surrounding land - has been a long-standing concept in land use.
What the state has done is taken a step toward kidnapping all local zoning regulations.
Natural gas exploration and production is a hot button for Harrisburg now, and the industry's best friend in state government has been willing to do its bidding.
But what about the next hot button? Does it get a bye on zoning as well?
What the state Supreme Court should look at - and the issue will go before the highest court - is whether Harrisburg can negate local regulations by fiat to benefit specific business entities. If the court rules in the affirmative, then it will set the stage for the end of local zoning protection in Pennsylvania.
We have always believed that local government is, by nature, closest to the people it represents and better prepared to make decisions affecting their health, safety and property. Just as the concept of federalism still occupies federal courts more than two centuries since it was invented, the relationship between local and state governments is often contentious. We can only hope that the Surpreme Court will look at the broad implications of what this law portends and not just the immediate affects.