by Karen MansfieldThe Almanac
September 13th, 2011

Peters Township Council voted unanimously Monday to let a Washington County Court judge determine whether a referendum on a home rule-charter amendment seeking to ban natural gas drilling in the municipality is legal and can appear on the ballot in November.

About 2,400 registered township voters signed a petition presented Aug. 8 to Washington County Director of Elections Larry Spahr seeking the referendum on a home rule-charter amendment.

However, township solicitor William Johnson advised council the amended home rule charter would be illegal and would violate, among other things, the Oil and Gas Act, the township’s planning code, Pennsylvania and federal constitutions and prevailing decisions by appellate courts of the commonwealth regarding similar cases. If the court throws out the ordinance, Johnson said, the township would be left without protection and would be subject to significant claims.

Township residents in attendance disputed Johnson’s assertion and said they were told by their own legal counsel that if the referendum were passed and found to be illegal, a recently passed ordinance dealing with gas well drilling would go back into effect.

Said one resident, “The people have spoken and they want a chance to have a say on this. We urge you not to enjoin … we’re just putting it on the ballot. It doesn’t become an issue until it’s voted on. We could be no more vulnerable than we are now.”

Council gave Johnson the go-ahead to petition the court to enjoin and prohibit the election office from placing the questions on the ballot. Johnson said he will notify the election office, who was aware council might take the action, today.

Several council members said they opposed gas drilling in the municipality but voiced concern over the referendum.

Councilman Robert Lewis said the terms of the referendum had “no enabling legislation in support of it coming from the federal government or our state; we don’t have the authority to do what this is asking us to do.”

He also said he believes there is a significant difference between a challenge to a zoning ordinance the township adopted and the potential challenges to an illegal ordinance.

“I believe the question we need to know is, are we headed in the direction of a legal referendum question, and I say we should have that answered before it goes to the voters,” Lewis said.

Johnson said there is no timetable for when the court will make a decision, but he believes it will be mindful of the approaching election date.

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