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Middlesex board set for zoning decision

Resident Janice Kennedy testifies Tuesday in support of shale gas drilling in Middlesex Township.

MIDDLESEX TWP — After five months of testimony, the township zoning hearing board members will announce their decision April 29 on whether to uphold or overturn the township’s controversial gas and oil zoning amendment

George Born, the zoning hearing board president, said at Tuesday night’s hearing that the board’s decision will be announced at the 7 p.m. meeting at the fire hall.

The hearing, which has been held since November, is the result of a challenge to the amendment passed in August by the township supervisors.

Four township residents plus the Philadelphia-based environmental groups the Clean Air Council and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network are challenging the zoning amendment because it allows unconventional natural gas drilling operations in much of the township.

Attorneys from the township, Rex Energy and MarkWest Energy Partners back the amendment.

The challenge caused a stoppage of the work on the five Rex Energy gas wells at the Bob and Kim Geyer farm on Denny Road, which a group of Mars School District parents have protested for a year because they say shale gas drilling operations would pose a health and safety hazard to the students in the nearby Mars schools.

On Tuesday two witnesses were called by township solicitor Michael Hnath.

Township residents Janice Kennedy and Catherine Morley testified in support of shale gas drilling in the township before about 100 of their neighbors.

Morley answered questions about her experience as a neighbor of both the Ferree and Reno wells off Route 228 East.

Morley said neither of the wells has harmed her or her family.

Kennedy, an outspoken supporter of shale gas drilling, the Geyer well, and the supervisors, testified that the ongoing construction of the Weatherburn Heights development since January 2010 has caused a plethora of troublesome noise and light at her farmette, which is beside the development.

The defenders of the ordinance amendment have long contended that shale gas drilling is far less harmful to neighbors than farming or construction.

In his cross examination of Kennedy, the challengers’ attorney, Jordan Yeager, asked Kennedy whether the township ordinance is what allowed Weatherburn Heights to go in next to her property.

Yeager asked Kennedy if she understands that zoning has an impact on people’s property rights, and if it impacted her during the construction of Weatherburn Heights.

“I had to endure a lot,” Kennedy replied, “but I either get over it or I move.”

Both sides gave their 15-minute closing arguments Tuesday night.

Yeager told the board that the purpose of zoning is to determine the uses that fit in various locations, to consider what is good for the community as a whole, and to follow a community’s comprehensive plan.

“You keep incompatible use types separate,” Yeager said.

He pointed to Kennedy’s testimony of the heavy machinery chugging or beeping outside her window, and said the zoning ordinance recognizes that such construction activity should not be allowed throughout the township.

“But with gas drilling, they flipped it,” Yeager said of the ordinance, which allows gas drilling, compressor stations, pipelines and processing plants in much of the township.

Yeager listed the harmful chemicals that expert witnesses said are a part of shale gas drilling, and he charged the board with recognizing that the Geyer well is misplaced.

“If at any point we’re going to make an error, we ought to err on the side of protecting our children,” he said.

Those who oppose the ordinance loudly applauded Yeager’s closing arguments.

But attorney Kevin Colosimo, who represents Rex Energy, said the zoning board’s job is not to supplant their opinion over that of the supervisors.

He said the voters can remove the supervisors if they feel they have erred by passing the ordinance amendment.

“You may not like what they did, but that doesn’t mean its invalid,” Colosimo said. “It’s your role to determine whether they stepped out of bounds.”

Colosimo also pointed out that the Delaware Riverkeeper, the Clean Air Council, and three of the four residents who challenged the ordinance amendment did not testify.

“They are all responsible for us coming here,” Colosimo said. “I submit to you that all of them should be dismissed for lack of standing.”

Colosimo said that Yeager did not present any evidence that the supervisors were in dereliction of their duty in passing the ordinance amendment.

“It is a reasonable restriction, and there’s no basis to overturn it,” he said.

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