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A judge on Wednesday ordered a temporary halt to the section of Pennsylvania's new Marcellus Shale law that puts limits on the power of municipalities to regulate the booming natural gas exploration industry, a victory for the seven municipalities that sued.
However, the Commonwealth Court senior judge, Keith Quigley, suggested that the towns' wider challenge to the constitutionality of the local zoning limitations is questionable, saying in a two-page order that he's not convinced that the "likelihood of success on the merits is high."
Still, Quigley said, municipalities need enough time to develop new zoning rules under the 8-week-old law and have them in place to regulate oil and gas drilling before their existing zoning becomes invalid Saturday.
Quigley ruled several hours after listening to arguments in court for a half-hour and then speaking with lawyers privately in his chambers.
"What we were seeking was 100 percent what the court granted," said John Smith, the solicitor for Robinson Township in Allegheny County.
With regard to Quigley's comments about the wider lawsuit, Smith said he's not concerned because Quigley will not hear the case. Rather, a Commonwealth Court panel could hear it, or it could go to the state Supreme Court if Quigley's order is appealed, Smith said.
A spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett pointed out the judge's doubt about the ultimate success of the lawsuit and said the administration is considering its options, including whether to appeal.
"All this decision means is that municipalities will get an additional 120 days to come into compliance with the zoning provision of the law," Corbett spokesman Eric Shirk said.
The law's local-zoning provisions, which had been scheduled to take effect Saturday, set statewide limits on the extent to which a municipality can regulate the booming Marcellus Shale industry, including well drilling and construction on pipelines and compressor and processing stations.
But lawyers for the seven municipalities argued that allowing the law to invalidate ordinances later this week would not have given towns enough time to rewrite their rules to comply with the law, or to challenge its constitutionality. As a result, they said, towns would be temporarily powerless to protect their residents' quality of life and property values, especially if companies promptly seek permits in the coming days and weeks.
About 125 municipalities had at least one oil and gas zoning ordinance in effect earlier this year, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, although not all of those are necessarily invalidated by the law.
The municipalities also are seeking to have the law's local zoning provisions struck down as unconstitutional, and they had asked Quigley to allow local zoning ordinances to stand in the short term. His order granted that request.
Among the objectionable provisions cited by the towns' March 29 lawsuit are requirements that drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in every zoning district, including residential districts, as long as certain buffers are observed.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Howard Hopkirk argued to Quigley that the state created the municipal planning code, and municipalities have no right or standing to complain about perceived harm to its residents if the state pre-empts parts of it.
Corbett's spokesman has said the administration is confident the law will withstand judicial scrutiny.
Aside from Robinson, the plaintiffs include townships in southwestern Pennsylvania -- Peters, Cecil and Mount Pleasant in Washington County, and South Fayette in Allegheny County -- where exploration of the Marcellus Shale is under way, and Nockamixon Township and Yardley Borough in southeastern Pennsylvania's Bucks County, where officials are worried about their inability to control future natural gas exploration.