The Ligonier Valley Joint Comprehensive Plan steering committee on Wednesday voted to send a series of zoning changes concerning unconventional drilling operations to Ligonier Township’s planning commission for review.

From expanding monitoring areas around gas wells to requiring air, soil and water testing, the comprehensive plan environmental subcommittee drafted its recommendations “in order to strengthen the protection of our citizens and the environment.”

Subcommittee coordinator Mickey Corb acknowledged the group’s “enormous amount of work” studying Ligonier Township’s zoning ordinance, researching other municipalities’ ordinances, reviewing current industry research and finally outlining their recommendations in a 13-page document.

She recognized the members who authored the amendments: Ed and Vickie Oles, Cheryl Lee, Renny Sherrow, Jan and Jack Milburn, Julia Ritter, April Jackman and Annie MacDougall.

“These people have just done it hard and they addressed one of the sub-goals of the environmental subcommittee, which is to encourage practices and regulations that provide protection for identified natural and scenic resources, agricultural lands and the supply and quality of water resources for consumption and recreational use. So any industrial component that you’re going to have could seriously affect that if you don’t have best practices in hand,” Corb said.

Project chairman Ed Oles thanked his team for working to improve Ligonier Township’s zoning ordinance as well as the steering committee for its guidance through the process.

The most extensive part of the document addresses application requirements for oil or natural gas wells, namely those created by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is allowed as a conditional use in the township’s industrial and agricultural districts.

The subcommittee recommended requiring applicants to state additional information about the proposed well site and facilities, including: the total number of wells planned; a schedule and description of activity phases; a waste disposal plan; records of the company’s previous enforcement notices, fines or penalties; a risk assessment report detailing potential public health hazards affecting residents within one linear mile from the well site, and an emergency response plan.

The applicant would also need to submit a comprehensive environmental impact analysis of the well site and surrounding properties affected by the operation, plus air and soil quality studies, a hydrogeological analysis of surface and groundwater, and water testing at multiple stages.

Corb pointed out increased setbacks for the various proposed studies, including pre-drilling and post-fracking water testing within 3,000 feet of the surface location of any well.

She explained that the group examined the township’s zoning ordinance in light of developments in the natural gas industry since the ordinance was passed in 2015 and further protections other Pennsylvania municipalities have been able to achieve.

Steering committee chairwoman Barbara Nalle asked if the group aligned their recommendations with state and federal laws.

Corb said the subcommittee based its proposed zoning modifications on what they found to succeed in surrounding communities’ ordinances, which in turn referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Natural Gas STAR Program. The program “provides a framework for partner companies with U.S. oil and gas operations to implement methane reducing technologies and practices and document their voluntary emission reduction activities,” according to the EPA website.

After the planning commission’s review, the proposed changes would advance to the township’s board of supervisors, which would then direct solicitor Michael Korns to draft a zoning ordinance amendment to be voted on after a public hearing.

Besides completing the zoning analysis, the Ligonier Valley Joint Comprehensive Plan environmental, economy and community subcommittees have made strides on other ongoing projects since the steering committee decided to pursue these initiatives in April.

The supervisors in July passed a resolution to submit a revision to Ligonier Township’s Act 537 sewage facilities plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, plus began exploring solar technology for a new sewage treatment plant off Wilpen Road slated for the proposed public sewer expansion along Route 711 north, according to economy subcommittee coordinator Stephanie Verna.

The steering committee also wants to improve internet access in the Ligonier Valley. Township manager Terry Carcella is working with Comcast and Laurel Highland Total Communications to expand the companies’ service to parts of the township that lack access. So far, the township has been able to extend service to 10 homes on Nicely Road, Verna said.

The supervisors last month also passed a new wireless communications ordinance that guides the design and placement of smaller antenna networks devised for the next generation 5G cellular technology.

Ligonier Borough emergency management coordinator Gene Stouffer stressed the need for better wireless service, particularly in more remote areas of Ligonier Township where emergency boat teams rely on radio communication during flooding events.

Nalle said she planned to have Stouffer meet with Ligonier Township emergency management coordinator John Beaufort to discuss how to inform the public about emergency protocols.

The community subcommittee has been busy this summer organizing the Ligonier Valley’s first National Night Out held Tuesday evening in Ligonier Borough, which exceeded coordinator Mariah Fisher’s expectations. The community-wide event highlighted the region’s police department, four volunteer fire departments and first responders.

That subcommittee continues its research of existing resources for drug awareness and prevention programs, according to steering committee vice-chairman Jack Fry, who attended the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission’s recent prevention needs assessment program.

Fry said the subcommittee is also working with the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce on a marketing brochure that businesses and real estate agents can use to show visitors and potential residents everything the Ligonier Valley has to offer.

“It’s not just the Diamond. It’s a lot of other assets that we have through the Valley,” Fry said.

A steering committee Facebook page is also in the works to update the public on the progress of these and future comprehensive plan projects.

The Ligonier Valley Joint Comprehensive Plan steering committee typically meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, alternating between council chambers at Ligonier Town Hall and the Ligonier Township Municipal Complex.

The next meeting is set for Sept. 5.

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