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PA Supreme Court Narrowly Interprets Preemption in Surface Mining Act



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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in a decision which narrowly interprets the preemption provision of the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act of November 30, 1971.

On November 23, 2011, the Court decided Hoffman Mining Co. v. Zoning Hearing Board. After the effective date of the Surface Mining Act, Adams Township, Cambria County, adopted a Zoning Ordinance which permitted mining in a district known as the Conservancy (S) District only by special exception. The zoning ordinance required ?[a]ll mining, excavating and blasting activities? in the district to maintain a setback of at least 1000 feet from all residential structures.

Plaintiff Hoffman filed an application with the Zoning Hearing Board for a special exception to conduct surface mining. Hoffman also requested a variance from the 1000 foot setback, asking that it be reduced to 300?asserting that 88 percent, or approximately $8,000,000 in value of the coal, lay within 1000 feet of residences in the village. Hoffman asserted that the setback requirement was preempted by the Surface Mining Act, which only provides that no surface mining operations are permitted within 300 feet of any occupied dwelling. 52 P.S. SS 1396.4b(c).

The Zoning Hearing Board found to be credible testimony which was received from the residents concerning hazards which would result from surface mining including dust and debris descending on the village, danger to children from open holding ponds and a risk of respiratory problems. The Board granted the special exception but denied the requested variance, finding that the 1000 foot setback was not preempted. The Court of Common Pleas made the same finding which was upheld by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court (the Court) granted certiorari or review.

Since the question presented was an issue of law, the Court assumed a broad scope of review. Absent a clear statement of legislative intent to preempt, state legislation will not generally preempt local legislation on the same issue. The preemption provision of the Surface Mining Act expressly excepted from preemption, ordinances adopted pursuant to the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, the legislation which authorizes local zoning ordinances.

The Court recognized two other possible bases for finding preemption?Conflict Preemption where the local enactment irreconcilably conflicts with or stands as an obstacle to the execution of the full purposes of the statute; and Field Preemption, where analysis of the entire statute reveals the General Assembly?s implicit intent to occupy the field completely and to permit no local enactments. Concerning conflict preemption, the Court found a 1000 foot setback was not in conflict with a 300 foot setback. As to field preemption, the Court found that the Surface Mining Act did not principally regulate the location or siting of mines, leaving the subject open for local regulation. The Court affirmed the ruling of the Commonwealth Court.

The Court did distinguish, as being broader than the equivalent provision of the Surface Mining Act, the preemption provision which appears in the Oil and Gas Act. That law provides in part: ?No ordinances or enactments adopted pursuant to the aforementioned acts [Municipalities Planning Code and Flood Plain Management Act] shall contain provisions which impose conditions, requirements or limitations on the same features of oil and gas well operations regulated by this act or that accomplish the same purposes as set forth in this act.? (emphasis supplied by the Court).