Appeals court rules against St. Tammany Parish in fracking dispute _lowres

Advocate Photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- A crowd gathers to show their displeasure with fracking permits in St. Tammany Parish during the Louisiana of Department Resources public hearing about the Helis' drilling on the Northshore held at Lakeshore High School in Mandeville on Wednesday, November 12, 2014.

A state appeals court has dealt another blow to fracking opponents in St. Tammany Parish.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge on Wednesday upheld a lower court ruling dismissing claims brought by St. Tammany Parish and the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.

The parish and the group had argued that the parish’s zoning laws should have prevented the state from issuing a drilling permit for the site of the proposed fracking well because it is zoned for residential use.

The parish also argued that state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh had failed to properly consider the parish’s master plan before issuing the permit.

In April, 19th Judicial District Court Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge rejected the parish’s claims on those two counts, but his decision was suspended while the appeal worked its way through the courts. The appeals court’s decision reaffirmed Morvant’s ruling.

The decision was issued late in the day and was still being studied by attorneys connected to the case, but a spokesman for Helis Oil & Gas Co., the company that wants to drill the well, was understandably satisfied with the ruling.

“We are very happy that the appeals court has affirmed the legitimacy of our position,” Greg Beuerman said. “Our hope is that the ruling will send a clear legal signal to the parish and help break the legal logjam that’s been holding the project up.”

Work at the site has been suspended for nearly a year because of a stop-work order the parish issued in April when Morvant agreed to set his decision aside while the appeal was active.

As of Wednesday night, the parish had not rescinded the order, but spokesman Ronnie Simpson said officials will review the ruling with their attorneys and decide what to do.

However, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany intends to appeal the matter to the Louisiana Supreme Court, according to Rick Franzo, the group’s president.

“We kind of anticipated this,” he said of the ruling. “With or without (the parish), we are going to continue on.”

Appellate Judges Wayne Ray Chutz, John Michael Guidry and Guy Holdridge heard the case in November. As part of their ruling, they assessed $9,055 in appeals costs against the parish and the activist group.

The decision is just the latest in a series of court skirmishes between opponents of the plan and Helis; of late, most of the decisions have been going Helis’ way. A federal judge refused to invalidate the company’s wetlands permit, and another state judge also refused to revoke the drilling permit based on a claim brought by the town of Abita Springs.

The proposed well has been controversial since news of it became public in 2014. An array of groups quickly appeared, begging the parish to stop the plan at all costs. The opponents have cited fears about the possible effects of the well on air and water quality. Their complaints have echoed those of fracking opponents nationwide.

Helis has insisted that it plans to drill the well safely and responsibly.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.