Oversight of two critical infrastructure systems – power lines and pipelines – is exclusively in the hands of a Pennsylvania agency, the state’s highest court ruled this week.
In its ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously pre-empted the city of Lancaster’s attempts to authorize where power lines and pipelines can be placed in city-owned rights of way.
The high court’s decision addresses challenges PPL Electric Utilities Corp. initially raised with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in 2014. PPL at the time argued the state had the sole authority over regulating utilities in the case of PPL Electric Utilities vs. City of Lancaster et al.
In the 35-page document, Justice David N. Wecht affirmed PPL’s argument, stating Pennsylvania’s Public Utilities Code lays the groundwork for which entity has administrative and regulatory authority: the state Public Utilities Commission.
“In delegating these matters to the PUC, the legislature plainly intended that discretionary decision-making be vested in one regulatory body, in furtherance of uniformity of application,” Wecht wrote, outlining the full court’s opinion on the matter.
If Lancaster and the scores of other municipalities across the state had the authority to impose their own municipal-specific ordinances, Wecht in the opinion said it would muddy the waters. Leaving oversight in the hands of a singular agency, he wrote, prevents ambiguity.
Ruling in favor of Lancaster, Wecht wrote, “would be confounded by inviting hundreds of municipalities to create their own patchwork of ‘supplementary’ regulations to enforce at whim.”
Wecht and the other justices on the state Supreme Court also gave a unanimous ruling Lancaster does not have the authority to require inspection of utilities or authorize where power lines and pipelines can be placed.
“Relocation and removal of utility facilities also lie within the pre-emption field,” Wecht wrote on the basis for the court’s ruling. “Against this backdrop, it is equally clear … (municipal) enforcement authority also is pre-empted.”
The Commonwealth Court had previously ruled in favor of Lancaster’s claim it had the right to impose a maintenance fee for the use of municipal rights-of-way, but the state Supreme Court this week overturned the lower court’s decision, stating Lancaster and other municipalities do not possess such a right.
“By allowing local government … to determine the reasonableness of the city’s maintenance fees, we again run into concerns regarding local authorities’ competing motives, as well as inconsistencies across jurisdictions, where the burden of maintenance fees, and what fees are reasonable, may vary considerably,” Wecht wrote in the opinion.