Allegheny County Council wavers on Deer Lakes drilling pact

As Allegheny County Council prepares for what could be a close vote tonight on whether to allow nonsurface natural gas drilling beneath the county-owned Deer Lakes Park, at least two members plan to offer additional amendments to the legislation.

John DeFazio, an at-large Shaler Democrat who is president of council, said last week and again Monday that he believes it will be a close vote, but that the proposal will likely get the minimum eight of 15 votes it needs to pass.

"That's my sense," he said. "I don't want to say anything for sure."

But before they take the vote, council members will hear one more time from dozens of their constituents and discuss possible amendments.

About 90 people had registered to speak in three-minute time slots prior to council's vote by midday Monday, according to the legislative body's chief clerk, Jared Barker.

That level of public interest is on par with what county council saw prior to its votes on the 2007 drink tax and the 2009 nondiscrimination ordinance, he said.

And it is in keeping with the high level of interest that has surrounded the Deer Lakes proposal since August, when members of a group that calls itself Protect Our Parks began attending council meetings and urging members to vote against any proposals to open county parks for gas development.

But it was not until March 17 that county Executive Rich Fitzgerald unveiled the details of a proposed lease with Range Resources to drill beneath the 1,180-acre park overlying parts of West Deer and Frazer.

The lease negotiated by the county calls for Range, with its Monroeville partner Huntley & Huntley, to drill for natural gas beneath three planned well pads located on property outside the park.

In exchange, Range would pay the county a $4.7 million bonus payment, plus $3 million toward a parks improvement fund and 18 percent in royalties, a percentage that Huntley's president said last week would yield a conservative estimate of $51 million to the county.

Mr. Fitzgerald has called it the "most comprehensive nonsurface lease" in the state, a message he brought to council when he presented the proposed lease and ordinance in March and that he reiterated inside an auditorium at Deer Lakes High School early last month, when he held a four-hour-long public meeting that included arguments by the public both for and against the proposal.

After a series of public hearings and information sessions for council members over the past two months, council is expected to vote tonight. But instead of considering the original ordinance proposed by Mr. Fitzgerald two months ago, it is scheduled to vote on one with amendments made last week to include additional details from the lease, such as the payments Range must make to the county, roadway restrictions, and noise and lighting regulations.

Mr. DeFazio, sponsor of the amendments, said Monday that he believes his co-sponsors on the amended ordinance -- fellow Democrats Nicholas Futules of Oakmont, Michael Finnerty of Scott, Charles Martoni of Swissvale, Bob Macey of West Mifflin and Jim Ellenbogen of Banksville -- will vote in favor of it.

Councilman Tom Baker, R-Ross, said he will be voting yes, as well.

His fellow Republican, Jan Rea of McCandless, said she was leaning toward a no vote.

Barbara Daly Danko, a Regent Square Democrat whose proposal calling for a three-year moratorium on drilling in county parks failed last fall, said she will cast a "no" vote.

"I still think that the parks are unique places, and as the trustees, we shouldn't use them as a profit center," she said.

Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, said he will introduce an amendment that calls for the Deer Lakes lease to include a detailed plan on how Range will provide jobs for black citizens and those graduating from the oil and gas program at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Rather than saying Monday how he intends to vote, he said he will wait to see if his amendment passes.

Heather Heidelbaugh, an at-large Republican who lives in Mt. Lebanon, declined to discuss how she will vote. She will be introducing an amendment tonight that adds additional detail to the ordinance, such as requirements regarding contamination of groundwater and use of roads within the park.

As for the overall vote, she said she thinks it will be close.

"I think some people had decided long ago, and I think some people are on the fence," she said.

Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, declined to say how she would vote, but she, too, predicted it would be a close one.

Amanda Green Hawkins, a Stanton Heights Democrat, has said she will abstain from the vote since her husband's business interests involve Range.

Council's meeting starts at 5 p.m.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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