Following a public hearing earlier this week, the Ligonier Township Board of Supervisors will soon consider enacting new oil and natural gas drilling regulations in the municipality.
The supervisors didn’t take any action Tuesday after the hearing held during its regular meeting but heard testimony on the proposed ordinance that amends the section of the township’s zoning ordinance covering unconventional natural resource drilling – also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Township solicitor Michael Korns highlighted some of the key changes, including increased setbacks from protected structures and waterways, additional performance standards, information requirements and environmental studies that drilling companies must provide.
The environmental subcommittee under the Ligonier Valley Joint Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee spent months researching and developing the proposed oil and gas revisions in collaboration with the planning commission and solicitor.
“The Pennsylvania constitution says, use your own property so as not to injure your neighbors. To that end, our laws allow for these types of local regulations and we’re pleased that this ordinance addressed the concerns of all property owners in the township. It not only establishes important protections for those who do not want drilling, but it also protects landowners who choose to drill, because this ordinance identifies and requires the use of current industry best practices and scientific research recommendations,” environmental subcommittee member Julia Ritter said.
Several subcommittee members and Ligonier Township residents offered written and verbal support of the ordinance, commending its expanded provisions but also urging officials to revisit the township’s 2015 zoning ordinance and map and reconsider allowing unconventional drilling in the agricultural district.
“Fracking belongs in an industrial zone because it is without question a heavy industrial activity and will result in spills, blowouts, violations, air pollution and water contamination, the mixing of toxic chemicals and the storage of toxic waste on site in Ligonier, pipelines that have polluting compressor stations,” said township resident Jan Milburn.
Ritter acknowledged that the subcommittee focused on finding common ground when drafting the proposed amendments and chose not to dwell on the idea of limiting drilling to the industrial district only.
“In formulating these recommendations alongside the planning commission, we chose to work on the issues that we could all agree on. While we see this as updating and strengthening the 2015 ordinance, it is important to note that many residents still have concerns that were addressed in the original recommendations that were not approved or moved forward here,” Ritter said.
The ordinance also adds language to the zoning ordinance that would simplify the process for residents to install solar panels at their homes – namely definitions for “single-family solar array,” “solar” and “renewable energy source.”
If approved, the township’s zoning officer would be able to approve solar panels for single-family homes. Commercial and multi-family home installations would still need to be approved by the township’s zoning hearing board as special exceptions, as has historically been the process for all solar panels.
The planning commission previously recommended approval of the oil and gas and solar technology amendments. Korns reported that the township received a letter from the Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Development after its review of the ordinance amendments with one comment essentially asking if any injection well standards and criteria would result in exclusionary zoning.
The supervisors will consider all written and verbal testimony when they decide whether to enact the ordinance at their Nov. 10 meeting.
The board will be one less supervisor that evening, as less than a year into his first six-year term on the Ligonier Township board of supervisors, Dan Weimer has resigned, citing a conflict of interest with his employer, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
The rest of the board voted to accept Weimer’s resignation, thanking him for his service and the work he accomplished during his short tenure. He did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
PennDOT was the party that felt Weimer’s role as an elected official to be a conflict of interest on their end, not Ligonier Township, Korns said.
Weimer was elected for one of two open supervisor seats in the 2019 general election. His term expires Dec. 31, 2025.
According to Section 407 of Pennsylvania’s Second Class Township Code (Act 69 of 1933), the supervisors have 30 days to fill Weimer’s seat. If they cannot appoint someone, the vacancy board has an additional 15 days to do so; that board comprises the supervisors plus chairman Larry Shirey.
If the vacancy board is unable to fill the position, it can petition the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas to appoint someone instead.
Potential candidates should submit letters of interest to the attention of township manager Terry Carcella and the board of supervisors at the Ligonier Township Municipal Complex, 1 Municipal Park Drive, Ligonier, PA 15658.
Weimer’s appointed replacement will serve through the end of 2021. There will be two open supervisor seats on the ballot next year, a six-year term and a four-year term fulfilling the rest of Weimer’s term.
Weimer also serves as the first alternate member on the township’s planning commission through 2022. However, this is not an elected position that makes binding decisions, but rather an appointed role on a recommending body, Korns pointed out.
In other business, the supervisors authorized the Ligonier Township Recreation Board to move forward with an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible fishing platform at Mill Creek Memorial Park near the Ligonier Valley Trail bridge.
Measuring 30 feet long by 12 feet wide, the prefabricated steel structure will be installed on a 1.8-acre parcel with permission from property owner First Energy. An adjoining trail will follow Mill Creek to the end of Kastner Street in Ligonier Borough, pending council approval.
Built by ADM Welding & Fabrication of Warren, the platform will develop a rust barrier over time and never need maintenance, according to recreation board chairman Larry Shew. The platform’s railing will mimic the railing on the nearby Rose Stepnick Crossing pedestrian bridge.
The fishing platform will sit on precast abutments that the township’s public works crew can install.
After working on this project for a few years, the recreation board has secured $18,500 in grant funding and donations, according to Shew, including $10,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, $5,000 from the Rita M. McGinley Foundation, $2,000 from Victor Smith and $1,500 from Marcy Larson.
The board also expects an additional $7,500 from the Al Ludwig Memorial Fund, pending official approval from its administrators. The fund was founded by students of the long-time Ligonier Valley School District teacher, in whose honor the fishing platform will be named.
“We think it’s a nice gesture for the community because there’s so many students who thought so highly of him,” Shew said.
The supervisors voted to allow the recreation board to spend the money accordingly, allocate township manpower to construct the foundation, and name the dock after Ludwig.
The total project cost is estimated around $26,500. The fishing platform is anticipated to be completed by the end of the year, Shew said.
He said the Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation has also pledged $5,000 toward a master plan for Mill Creek Memorial Park, which will include a walkway, benches and landscaping. The township has a long-term lease with First Energy for the park.
The supervisors thanked Shew and the recreation board for their work on the fishing platform, as well as their efforts with the Ligonier Beach Park Development Committee.
“I’ve been extremely impressed and just humbled by the generosity of the volunteers and the people on the committee and the rec board but also the people in the community that give us these donations. That’s going to be an amazing project when it’s done,” said supervisor Stephanie Verna.
Ligonier Township continues to pursue – and win – grant funding for the municipality and the regional police department.
Ligonier Valley Police Chief John Berger announced that the police department received a grant that will fund the purchase of 10 body-worn cameras for its officers. The $25,000 award comprises matching grants from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck’s office.
The WatchGuard Video body cameras will come from the same company that provided in-car video systems for the police force in 2018. No taxpayer funds will be used to purchase the technology, which also includes network server upgrades.
“With everything going on in the country, it not only protects the officers, it protects the citizens as well. It can be used for multiple things, as far as even filming crime scenes and different things like that,” Berger said, also thanking township administrative assistant Bethany Caldwell, who prepared the grant application.
The supervisors voted unanimously to apply for a Westmoreland CARES Municipal Support Grant that would reimburse Ligonier Township for any expected coronavirus (COVID-19) related expenses incurred between March 1 and Oct. 1, from personal protective equipment to police overtime pay and technology needed to conduct remote meetings.
The township is seeking the maximum $30,000 that can be applied for under the program.
Ligonier Borough Council passed a similar resolution last week. This program is the third that the Westmoreland County Commissioners have launched to allocate the $31.5 million in federal CARES Act money provided to the county through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, under the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant.
The township also plans to collaborate with other community groups to apply for a U.S. Department of Agricultural Community Connect Grant that will help expand broadband access in Ligonier where Comcast and Laurel Highland Total Communications can’t or won’t expand.
“One of the avenues here is to provide service even in a community center, even a fire department. If we can get broadband into an area where people don’t have it in their home, but we can go to an area that’s controlled and it’s at no cost, that would expand job opportunities for the citizens of Ligonier Township,” Carcella said.
He also announced that the township has received a $42,500 grant for a Phase II development project at Ligonier Beach from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Unfortunately, that amount is far less than the $135,400 the township applied for. Officials are seeking clarification of the smaller award.
The Phase II Ligonier Beach Park project will address drainage issues in the site’s parking lot, add trail access to the Loyalhanna Creek and build /-compliant bathrooms for the existing pavilion at the historic swimming pool and restaurant, which remains closed while the township considers a potential redevelopment plan.
Verna reported that the finance committee is “sharpening our pencils” and taking a hard look at the 2021 budget, recognizing that while the township’s income has been impacted by the pandemic, many residents are also in the same position.
In a letter read during the meeting’s public comment period, resident Lewis Thomas criticized talk of potentially raising property taxes that occurred during the supervisors’ June meeting, as well as several larger expenses in the township, including the municipal complex, road crew, equipment inventory and the 24-hour local police department.
Verna suggested residents review their tax bills to compare the amounts allocated to the county and school district, compared to Ligonier Township.
“I know very often people will come to us under the impression that that full amount is coming to the township; it’s not,” Verna said.
“Four mills, I think we’re very much in line with Fairfield, Cook Township, and several of the other townships around,” chairman John Beaufort added.
In other financial news, the township received a clean bill of health for a 2019 state audit of its Liquid Fuels account, Carcella reported, noting that its extra layer of financial protection – employing an outside auditor on top of retaining a secretary-treasurer and assistant secretary-treasurer – is not something most municipalities do.