- Associated Press - Saturday, April 12, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Five days before Christmas, Franklin Kury stepped off Amtrak’s afternoon Keystone service in Middletown, one stop shy of Harrisburg, on a return trip from an eye doctor’s appointment in Philadelphia. It was cold, cloudy and dry. The snow that had fallen two days earlier was beginning to disappear and would be gone entirely if temperatures hit the predicted 70 degrees over the weekend.

As the 77-year-old former state legislator started the car, his thoughts were on the good report he received from the doctor - a report Kury looked forward to sharing with his wife Beth over dinner at home in Hummelstown.

Kury never suspected the afternoon would become one of the most memorable of his life.

Kury’s cellphone rang.

It was his friend John Dernbach, an environmental law professor at Widener University.

“Have you seen this?” Dernbach asked. “Franklin, you’ve got to read this!”

As Dernbach began to explain that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had just issued a ruling in a case involving the pre-emption of local zoning ordinances, Kury learned for the first time that the recent and rapid expansion of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale had produced for him a thoroughly unexpected gift.

“I have never been involved in oil and gas,” said Kury. “It was the first time I had any knowledge of the case.”

The case - Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - was already being trumpeted in a slew of press releases that afternoon as a great victory over the natural gas industry.

The lawsuit - which had been filed by an eclectic group of environmentalists and local government officials from around the state, including Washington County’s Robinson Township - challenged key portions of Act 13 of 2012, the predominantly Republican legislation that was supposed to address both environmental and gas industry concerns over drilling in the Marcellus shale.

Act 13 updated the state’s oil and gas laws to increase some restrictions on the drilling industry, and it extended the legal no-drilling zones around rivers, streams and wetlands.

But the law also pre-empted local zoning to allow drilling activity in all areas, all across the state.

That one-size-fits-all zoning scheme, the Supreme Court said, amounted to a “blanket accommodation of industry,” and - in a landmark decision - the court ruled Act 13’s zoning provisions unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruling upended the balance of power away from the natural gas industry and toward environmental protection advocates, eager to better regulate how shale gas is extracted in the Keystone State.

The ruling overturned 40 years of what had been considered settled case law and opened up a whole new world of environmental litigation that did not really exist in Pennsylvania before.

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