Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 25, 2012

PA Commonwealth Court Holds Gas Compressor is an Accessory Use to a Wellhead

The Bradford Township Zoning Officer charged New Century with a violation alleging that New Century’s compressor station, located where natural gas emerges from the wellhead, it not a use permitted in the Forest/Slope Residence District. The Officer asserted that the compressor station was not equipment “necessary to drilling or pumping operations and was not incidental to gas pumping operations,” which the statute allows. New Century contended “without the compressor station, it could not move its gas from the wellhead. Accordingly, it was equipment necessary to gas production or, alternatively, a permitted accessory use.  At the hearing on the notice, both sides presented multiple witnesses attesting to gas operations. The Board held that the compressor violated zoning ordinances because: “(1) it was an unauthorized building and (2) it was processing gas, an activity that can only take place in the Manufacturing District.” New Century was ordered to remove the station. At trial, the court rejected the Board’s unauthorized building claim as a reach, but concluded that the compressor stations was processing gas and thus affirmed the Board. New Century Appealed.

The Court looked at the issue of whether the compressor was equipment necessary to gas production, a permitted use. The Board has contended that the compressor was processing, something that is not permitted. New Century pointed out that the Black’s Law Dictionary that the trial court relied on does not define “production, ” only “produce.” An earlier version of the dictionary does where production is defined as including processing. “This defeats the Township’s strained premise that there is a chasm between production and processing.” New Century also pointed out how many activities can be classified as a “process,” and thus argued that the Board was playing a semantics game. New Century contended that its evidence established the technical meaning and usage of “production,” and “processing” in terms of the industry.

The Court held that the expert testimony the Board relied upon was insufficient because the testimony could not prove that the compressor was not necessary to gas pumping operations, and the expert could not “explain how the gas could be moved from the wellhead without the compressor station.” The Court noted, “Section 603.1 of the Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. § 10603.1, provides that when interpreting a zoning ordinance, the language shall be interpreted, where doubts exists as to the intended meaning of the language written and enacted b the governing body, in favor of the property owner and against any implied extension of the restriction.” Thus, the Court reversed the holding of the trial court and held the compressor station as essential to gas production.

In Re: Notice of Appeal from Township of Bradford, 2012 WL 1622496 (Pa.Cmwlth 5/9/2012)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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