Ligonier Township’s planning commission is moving toward finalizing the components of a potential zoning ordinance amendment it hopes to recommend to the board of supervisors this summer.

The planning commission on Thursday briefly reviewed the status of proposed oil and natural gas drilling regulations, zoning map changes and the addition of solar technology, which would all be rolled into one amendment presented at a public hearing.

The planning commission voted unanimously to table the unconventional drilling requirements until it receives geographic information system (GIS) data from the EADS Group, Ligonier Township’s engineering firm.

EADS is using GIS mapping software to determine where it would be feasible to drill in Ligonier Township, based on certain proposed distances for operations from protected structures, waterways and the like.

The environmental subcommittee under the Ligonier Valley Joint Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee in 2019 drafted a series of suggested amendments for unconventional drilling operations, also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Last week, the group met with the planning commission and township solicitor Michael Korns to review the recommendations and create as close to a final document as possible.

The resulting document is 26 pages long, between portions of the Ligonier Township’s current zoning ordinance, enacted in 2015, and the environmental subcommittee’s suggested edits and additions.

The environmental subcommittee developed its recommendations by studying other townships’ zoning ordinances and selecting what parts they felt were the best, member Vickie Oles told the Bulletin after the meeting. She said she was pleased with how well the subcommittee, planning commission and solicitor collaborated at the recent workshop.

“Given the Valley is riddled with rivers and streams, we want to make sure that those water sources are protected, as well as people’s well water, because there’s not a lot of city water. So that’s a very important thing we’re looking at, along with air quality, because we are in a valley and there are weather inversions. And so, we want to make sure if there is development that there isn’t a lot because every well pad creates that much more truck traffic, that much more pollution,” subcommittee member Annie MacDougall said.

Three subcommittee members – Oles, MacDougall and Julie Ritter – attended Thursday’s meeting either in person or via the Zoom video conferencing application to offer a couple additional modifications regarding air pollution monitoring and waste disposal plans.

Waiting another month will allow the parties involved in the oil and gas drilling guidelines to make any additional tweaks or clarifications.

“What we stated at the workshop was time is on our side. We want to make sure this is done correctly. We don’t want to rush it at the last minute and miss something that could throw this all out. This committee has put a lot of hard work into it,” planning commission chairwoman Barbara Nalle said.

Zoning and community development officer Jim Nieusma plans to have a final map showing some zoning district changes for the planning commission to review at its July 23 meeting.

In general, agricultural properties with planned public sewer access – except natural farms – would be changed to residential, given their development potential, Nieusma explained. Applicable areas would be Nicely Road, which already has water and sewer access, the frontage of Route 30 between Ligonier Beach and Laughlintown, and Route 711 North toward Wilpen.

Residents of Mountain Road have also requested that the township change their zoning district from agricultural to R-1 rural residential.

Also part of the zoning revisions would be adding solar panels as a permitted use that could be approved by the township’s zoning officer rather than having the zoning hearing board rule on a special exception request.

The planning commission just has to decide what level of solar installation can be added to the approved permit chart for each zoning district. Nieusma’s recommendation was to add only single-family home arrays to the chart and retain the zoning hearing board procedure for multi-family houses and commercial properties.

A public hearing on Ligonier Township’s proposed zoning ordinance amendment won’t happen until at least September, according to Korns. Given the cumbersome and expensive hearing process, officials want to address all these changes at one hearing, he explained.

The Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Development will also have to review the proposed amendment.

In other business, the planning commission also recommended approval of a minor subdivision plan for Matt Blistan, who seeks to combine two adjoining parcels he owns in the Valley Heights neighborhood.

Blistan wants to add a garage to an existing house on one of the two tracts on Hillside Drive, but the structure won’t comply with the township’s setback requirements without the property consolidation. His plan will go to the supervisors for final approval next month.

Half the planning commission and alternate members met in person for Thursday’s meeting at the Ligonier Township Municipal Complex, which is now open to the public with social distancing and mask restrictions per the township’s COVID-19 policies. Three other members attended via the Zoom and member Mickey Corb was absent.

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