A judge has dismissed a lawsuit that landowners and developers filed against individuals and environmental groups who have been fighting fracking near the Mars Area School District complex.
Natural gas drilling has been delayed in Middlesex Township in Butler County while a zoning ordinance that would allow drilling in 90 percent of the rural community is challenged. The group is hoping to prohibit shale drilling rigs from being erected within two miles of any school.
Dewey Homes and Investment Properties and 12 landowners sued the drilling opponents, seeking damages for royalties they've been unable to collect from gas drilling companies who have leases on their land.
Residents and environmental groups challenged that litigation, calling it a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP suit. Such suits, deemed illegal, are meant to silence opposition and chill free-speech rights. The ruling handed down by Judge Marilyn Horgan found that the lawsuit was not specific enough to proceed.
“The reason they did [not have enough specificity] is that the only thing that the Mars parents' group did was exercise their first amendment right to lobby the government, and you simply cannot be sued for that kind of activity,” said Vic Walczak, legal director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “In state court, you have to actually identify specifically what it is that the defendants did wrong.”
Dewey Homes has 20 days to file a new, more specific complaint, but an attorney for the landowners hasn't said whether there will be such a filing. The ACLU has also declined to comment on the possibility of seeking damages for its clients.