A semirural enclave in Lycoming County has become the latest legal battleground pitting neighbor against neighbor over Marcellus Shale gas drilling.
The environmental group PennFuture is hailing a judge's ruling last week that threw out a township decision allowing natural-gas wells to be drilled in an area zoned residential.
Judge Marc F. Lovecchio's Aug. 29 opinion is the first known to cite a December state Supreme Court ruling that rejuvenated a 1972 amendment to the state Constitution guaranteeing citizens a right to clean air and pure water.
PennFuture represented neighbors of a farm where Inflection Energy L.L.C., of Denver, obtained a conditional-use permit from Fairfield Township to drill the wells. Inflection halted drilling after two couples appealed the township's decision this year.
"We are pleased that the court supported the rights of citizens to rely on local zoning to protect their property values and way of life," said George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel for PennFuture.
Mark Sexton, Inflection Energy's chief executive, said the company is evaluating its response.
As gas-drilling operations move closer to population centers, the case captures a growing conflict between residents who object to gas drilling and landowners who stand to benefit financially. Sexton said about 400 mineral-rights owners have a stake in the wells that would be drilled at the site.
Fairfield Township, population 2,700, is a traditionally agricultural area east of Williamsport now interspersed with new housing and a regional shopping mall. It is on the leading edge of the Marcellus Shale formation.
The township's zoning code, enacted in 2007, before shale-gas drilling was envisioned, has three zones: commercial, industrial and residential/agricultural.
The 60-acre farm where Inflection planned to drill is owned by Donald and Eleanor Shaheen. Eleanor Shaheen said the well site is "not near anybody." PennFuture, in a news release, described it as being "in the middle of a residential neighborhood."
One house lies within a 1,000-foot radius of the well site, but a development of about 20 houses lies within 3,000 feet.
Lovecchio ruled that the ordinance permitted gas drilling in the residential zone only if the proposed land use was "similar to and compatible with" the residential and other low-impact uses authorized as a right in the district.
The judge said the township's board had failed to demonstrate that drilling was a compatible use, while the two couples who objected "presented substantial evidence that there is a high degree of probability that the use will adversely affect the health, welfare and safety of the neighborhood."
Citing December's Supreme Court ruling, Lovecchio said "the citizens' rights cannot be ignored and must be protected."
The neighbors who complained, Brian and Dawn Gorsline and Paul and Michele Batkowski, did not respond to calls for comment. In its statement, PennFuture quotes Dawn Gorsline as saying: "We prayed so hard and long. Like many persons, we purchased our home in a residential neighborhood with the expectation that we would raise our children in a healthy environment."
Eleanor Shaheen, in a phone interview, said she and her husband are in their 80s and live in nearby Hughesville. She said their health was in decline and they were counting on income from natural gas.
"We're really in need because we're going to a nursing home soon," she said. "We're just an old-fashioned couple. To have somebody keep this away, it's a sin."