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Communities Use Zoning to Protect Natural Features

The Appalachian Trail is a public footpath that spans 2,192 miles across 14 states between Maine and Georgia and crosses through 58 municipalities in Pennsylvania. The trail is the nation’s largest marked footpath and attracts 5 million hikers per year (though only a small portion complete the entire trail). It was designated as the first National Scenic Trail by the National Trails System Act of 1968 and is currently protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership of the land or by rights-of-way.

While a vast majority of the Appalachian Trail is comprised of wilderness, 40 communities along the corridor are designated trail communities – but many other communities along the trail also benefit from its existence. These communities act as resources for hikers, and as such, see tourism revenues. While the trail itself is largely protected by state governments, federal governments, and conservation districts, adjacent communities may also have interest in protecting their natural features.

Plainfield Township in Nazareth County, Pa., has just approved zoning changes to protect their natural recreational features. These changes are meant to block projects like natural gas pipelines, wind turbines, solar panels and cellphone towers from being located near its section of the Appalachian Trail.  According to the community, their adoption of this more restrictive zoning ordinance was not in response to a specific proposed project along its portion of the trail corridor. Rather, this ordinance is the result of Act 24 of Pa. Appalachian Trails Act dating back to June 2008. Act 24 requires Pennsylvania municipalities to act to preserve the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the Trail and to conserve and maintain it as a public natural resource.

An appeal was filed this summer with the Supreme Court by the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which seeks to cross the Appalachian Trail on Forest Service property in Virginia. In West Virginia, a fight is underway over the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which also seeks to cross the trail in West Virginia. The question is whether the U.S. Forest Service can authorize such crossings.

The topic is likely to be continuing source of debate, and an issue that has other communities along the trail considering their options to protect the trail resource.

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