The Ligonier Township Planning Commission will hold public workshops on potential zoning ordinance changes addressing oil and natural gas drilling, among other areas.

At one work session, the planning commission will examine a series of suggested oil and gas amendments drafted last year by the environmental subcommittee overseen by the Ligonier Valley Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee.

While there is no interest in drilling in Ligonier right now, solicitor Michael Korns said at the planning commission Thursday, to be safe, the township should ensure it has the regulations in place that it wants. The planning commission can use the environmental subcommittee’s recommendations as a starting point.

According to Korns, recent court decisions show that Pennsylvania law governing unconventional drilling — also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — now gives municipalities more choices in regulating these operations.

“The way I view and try to reconcile the court decisions that we’ve gotten has been that they’re giving the local municipalities a great deal of discretion — both ways. They’ve upheld ordinances that allow unrestricted fracking in every zone with minimum setbacks, such as in the Allegheny Township case. But they’ve also allowed higher levels of restrictions, they’ve allowed performance standards, they’ve allowed increased setbacks,” Korns said.

However, Korns cautioned the planning commission against imposing so many limits that they effectively ban fracking from Ligonier Township and advised members to make sure the rationale behind their regulations can withstand a legal challenge.

Environmental subcommittee member Ed Oles said the group reviewed other zoning ordinances and industry standards when developing their proposals concerning oil and natural gas extraction.

He urged the planning commission not to approve anything that isn’t current.

“Good as it was at the time, we do not want the township to have to approve a permit to drill based on the 2015 (zoning) ordinance that does not include the most current best practices for drilling and emergency management,” Oles said.

The planning commission will announce dates and times for the upcoming workshops. It will dedicate one session solely to oil and gas drilling regulations and address other proposed revisions separately, which include changing some zoning districts and adding definitions and uses to the zoning ordinance.

The township should add definitions for uses such as outdoor markets, Airbnb home rentals, tiny homes and solar panel arrays, decide where in the township they should be allowed and apply conditions if desired, according to zoning and community development officer Jim Nieusma.

His case in point: As the zoning ordinance does not address solar panels, Ligonier Township’s zoning hearing board had to consider three special exception requests for small installations. Nieusma believes these should be permitted uses approved by the zoning office.

The Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code includes a definition for renewable energy that the planning commission could use to develop a definition for solar technology, he said.

“If we don’t have anything to define it, we can’t regulate it,” Nieusma said.

He also wants to add banquet facility as a special exception in the agricultural district, rather than only permitting it in the highway commercial district.

Nieusma suggested adding a mixed-use growth overlay to the zoning map for corridors in the township that are primed for development: Route 711 North from Ligonier Borough to Peoples Road and Route 30 between Ligonier Beach and Laughlintown.

He also cited Nicely Road as a suburban residential development area that could attract young professionals, given the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County’s sewer line project there.

Ligonier Beach should be rezoned from rural residential to neighborhood commercial and the area of Wilpen slated for public sewer access changed from agricultural to residential, Nieusma said. Mountain Road residents have also requested their neighborhood be rezoned from agricultural to residential.

Any or all of the potential zoning changes brought up Thursday would likely be rolled into a single amendment for the board of supervisors to consider after a public hearing process.

When supervisors adopted Ligonier Township’s zoning ordinance in 2015, their intent was not to let it sit on the shelf but rather revisit the document every few years based on staff experiences and the issues they came across, Korns said.

“This is what we said we would do. So we’re going to do it,” he said.

Representatives for the Ligonier Camp and Conference Center (LCCC) returned to the planning commission with a final plan for a new lodge and fellowship hall.

The planning commission recommended conditional approval of the land development plan, contingent upon outstanding administrative items cited in The EADS Group’s engineering review: Payments of review fees and a signed bond agreement with Ligonier Township covering construction costs.

The new lodge and fellowship hall is needed to support expanded programming that the Christian summer camp and retreat center has been developing over the past decade, including family camps, an autism day camp program and a foster care camp program, LCCC executive director Patrick Myers previously explained.

The proposed 19,000-square-foot-building comprises 11 dozen-person dorms, a pair of rooms for counselors, and a central meeting space. Only summer campers and church, school, youth and nonprofits groups would be able to use the hall for their retreats. It would not be rented for commercial events.

The stormwater management system for the new development includes water quality inlets and a retention basin that will gradually release excess water into an unnamed tributary feeding Mill Creek.

The site plan also includes upgraded parking areas mainly consisting of a permeable geocell grid surface to help absorb groundwater.

Engineer Doug Coffman of The Markosky Engineering Group said that permits for the site’s erosion and sedimentation control plan, stormwater management plan and construction-related stormwater discharge have all been secured through the Westmoreland Conservation District and submitted to the township.

The LCCC is also waiting on a manufacturer’s design for a parking lot retaining wall to preserve one of the camp’s trees. The center is about two months away from securing a building permit from TKL Code Inspection Services.

In other business, the planning commission recommended conditional approval of a one-lot subdivision on Matson Road to settle an estate for Emma Clark and heard a sketch plan for another subdivision from Donald Laudadio, who wants to separate two existing homes he and his wife own on Darlington Road.

Code enforcement officer Keith Ashley announced that the Ligonier Beach Park Development Committee will hold public input meetings at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and March 25 at Fort Ligonier.

The planning commission also elected officers for 2020, retaining Barbara Nalle as chairwoman, Jim Darr as vice chairman and Sheila Grimm as secretary. Its next regular meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 27.

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