Robinson Twp. v. Commonwealth, 637 Pa. 239 (Pa. 2016)

Private corporations that do not sell gas directly to the public for compensation are not public utilities and, therefore, are not permitted to exercise the powers of eminent domain.
Case Details:

In 2012, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 13 (Act 13). Section 3241 of Act 13 gave corporations the right to appropriate an interest in real property in order to create subsurface storage reservoirs for natural gas and allowed them to take abutting areas around these reservoirs as a buffer zone for the stored natural gas. Seven municipalities, two elected government officials, a physician, and a non-profit environmental group (Citizens) collectively appealed to the Commonwealth Court seeking declaratory judgment that Act 13 was unconstitutional and seeking a permanent injunction against its enforcement. The Commonwealth Court found Section 3241 of Act 13 was constitutional, but on appeal the Supreme Court found Section 3241 to be unconstitutional.

In coming to its decision, the Supreme Court stated the power of eminent domain is one that belongs to the Commonwealth and allows it to take private property for public use, so long as the landowner receives just compensation for the taking. The Commonwealth may delegate that power to other entities, but the power is restrained by the federal and state constitutions, and other statutes. Section 3241 allowed empowered corporations to transport, sell, or store natural or manufactured gas and to use the subsurface real property of another landowner in order to store natural or manufactured gas. The Commonwealth Court found this was a constitutional delegation of the power of eminent domain because these corporations are public utilities and the Commonwealth has long permitted public utilities to have the power of eminent domain. The Supreme Court disagreed with this contention, holding instead that these corporations do not meet the definition of a public utility. Public utilities are those that own or operate facilities that produce, generate, transmit, distribute, or furnish natural gas, to or for the public for compensation. The relevant corporations did not sell gas directly to the public for compensation and, therefore, can’t be public utilities. Section 3241, therefore, violated the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Article 1, Section 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution by allowing a private corporation to take private property from landowners without just compensation.

Date of Decision: 9/28/16

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