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Locals fight for control over hydro-fracking

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New York's proposed regulations for the drilling technique known as "hydro-fracking" are currently in the public comment stage. The Department of Envitronmental Conservation has scheduled four public hearings will be held in November, three in the Marcellus shale region and one in New York City.

Environmental groups want more time for comment. And they'd also like public hearings in the Utica Shale area, which may be the next region slated for drilling.

As the state process advances, some communities are moving to make their towns 'off-limits' to the drillers. The "local control" tactic is being watched closely, particularly the Town of Dryden, where a test case is brewing. Our story comes from David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

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On a rainy night in early September, more than 100 people packed a firehouse in the town of Dryden,  NY for a public meeting about hydro-fracking.  It was mostly an anti-fracking crowd, and Chip Northrup, a former oil company executive turned anti-fracking activist, was preaching to the converted.

“You can’t depend on the kindness of Texans to repair your roads.”

Dryden is one of the growing number of municipalities around the state that have passed moratoriums or outright bans on the controversial drilling method. Town Supervisor Mary Anne Sumner says they have simply clarified existing zoning rules that forbid heavy industry.

“All our zoning since we’ve had zoning has never allowed heavy industrial uses. We consider it to be in conflict with our quiet, rural, you know, way of life here. So that’s the rationale. We’re allowed to regulate how our land is used. We have never allowed heavy industrial uses and we’re not gonna start now.”

The state’s environmental conservation law gives the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry to the DEC.  But Dryden and other towns are saying they’re not regulating the way the industry operates—they’re not allowing drilling in the first place.

That’s argument doesn’t make sense to Henry Kramer. He’s with the landowners group the Dryden Safe Energy Coalition.

“The rational they are using is that although they do not have the right to regulate fracking in New York State, they have the right to ban it. We find that completely illogical and not in keeping with state law.”

Environmental lawyer Helen Slottje has been pushing the land use strategy, advising dozens of communities in New York, including Dryden, that they can use zoning to keep gas drilling out.

“We use that land use authority to encourage towns to be very explicit in what they do or do not want. Most comprehensive plans we look at talk about preserving rural character and that people have chosen to live in these communities for very specific reasons, wanting a certain quality of life.”

Dryden’s ban is now being challenged by a Colorado company in a lawsuit that’s being closely watched around the state. Anschutz Exploration has invested five point one million dollars to drill on more than 22 thousand acres of land here.  Anschutz claims the environmental conservation law is on its side because of a provision saying it “supersedes” all related local laws except those regarding roads and property taxes.

The purpose of that provision, says John Holko of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, was to create consistent and tough regulations across the state.

“One of the reasons the oil and gas law is written the way it is in New York State is because it is very technical. The state has the people, personnel and knowledge to basically regulate it. To do it at a local level would be very, very difficult.”

That clause may be the industry’s ticket to drill even if townspeople don’t want it. These two competing interpretations of law seemed destined for a court fight, and Anschutz and Dryden may be the test case that resolves the issue. Professor John Nolon of the Land Use Law Center at Pace University says there may be a precedent in an earlier decision about mining.

“This exact dilemma came up when local governments began to regulate gravel mining and sand extraction. Turns out the ECL law has a similar provision superseding ability to regulate operations. The courts left intact their ability to determine where under zoning gravel mines could be placed.”

That decision would make perfect sense to Helen Slottje, the lawyer advocating drilling bans based on zoning.

“What’s the point of saying, we’re gonna regulate whether I can put a hair salon in my house or how big my shed is, but you can put a 5-acre wellpad next to my house. That just complete takes away every aspect of a community’s right to self-determination.”

For its part, the DEC says that when reviewing drilling applications, it will take into account whether they’re consistent with local land use, planning and zoning laws.  No drilling permits are expected to be issued until next year at the earliest.

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