Delaware Town Board and Local NY Zoning Can Regulate Gas Drilling


I usually try hard not to say,  “I told you so.”  More,  I usually try not to end an opinion with something that sounds like,  “Nanny, nanny, poo, poo.”

First, it’s unseemly and impolite.

Second, it’s obnoxious.

Third,  it doesn’t make friends or influence people.

With that in mind,  “I told you so!”

Last month,  I suggested  the Delaware Town Board  could use its zoning prerogatives to protect the health, wealth, welfare  and happiness of   The Town of Delaware by creating  protected  areas within its jurisdiction where gas drilling would be banned.  The suggestion was met with a  scoffing  opinion that  I just didn’t understand  New York’s  Municipal Home Rule statute.

The next afternoon,  at  the monthly meeting of the Sullivan County Legislature,  I and others  repeated the  silly notion of local zoning controls being used to regulate the siting of gas wells.  The Board was voting on a resolution to ban drilling from County-owned property.  Some citizen speakers wanted the County to expand the  ban to areas of the  privately-held sector.  Once again,  the idea was  met with  head-shaking and  a some impatience by certain legislators.

Usually,  when I know I’m right and others just don’t get it,   my first instinct is to shake them by their cheeks until their brains rattle with sense.  After 40+ years  of being an active citizen,  I’ve learned that that is an ineffective tactic.

So here’s an idea:   this Wednesday,  April 21st at 7:00 PM in the  Delaware Town Hall in Hortonville,  the Town of Delaware will hold  its monthly Board meeting.  After reading  Breathing’s re-cap of last month’s meeting,  some residents  organized support for the Town Resolution Supervisor James Scheutzow  had presented at the March  Town Board about gas drilling.  They even put a petition in support of the resolution at The Callicoon Wine Merchant and Windy Hill cheese shop(s).  (The resolution can be read in its entirety here.)

The petition is still there and has garnered an impressive number of signatures.  (If you live in the Town of Delaware,  you’re eligible to sign it and besides,  the two shops are a pleasure to visit.)

The thing is,  since those meetings last month,  the New York State Assembly has begun considering several  bills our New York State counties, towns and villages must recognize when dealing with the issue of drilling.

First, on April 2, 2010, NYS Assembly bill 10490 was referred to the New York Assembly’s  Environmental Conservation Committee (EnCon).  The Bill  will establish a moratorium on gas drilling in New York State until 120 days after the Environmental Protection Agency releases its study of the gas industry and its  impacts.

To my way of thinking,  all  citizen-generated resolutions about gas drilling must  incorporate this commonsensical piece of proposed legislation.

Second — and my personal favorite  — on April, 13, 2010,  NYS Assembly Bill  10633 was referred to the Assembly’s EnCon Committee.  This  “home rule” bill makes explicit the notion that  local governments  have and will have zoning control over where gas drilling occurs in their jurisdictions no matter what powers of jurisdiction a  State authority may  claim. (Obviously, local zoning ordinances cannot discriminate,  but if a  local government has a   bona fide rationale for instituting  protections and does not over-reach or regulate too restrictively, their actions are likely to  be upheld in New York State courts.)

In a bold effort to support local sustainability, to protect local resources and to prevent harm to our residents,  members of the State Assembly are making it clear that localities have the right and duty to defend and protect their local resources and residents.

No longer will  New York State villages, towns  and counties with zoning boards have the right or leeway to blame the State when gas wells or other potentially injurious enterprises  sprout up in their school yards or rural residential areas as is threatened, for example, across the River in Damascus, Pennsylvania.

Inaction will no longer be an option for local governments in New York.  It  will now be clear that if local governments do not regulate gas drilling enterprises within their jurisdictions, they are choosing to support  the short term pecuniary interests of a few lessors over the long-term and communal interests of  the land, water and people they are obligated to defend and protect.

So, instead of ending this  with “I told you so,”  I will ask  citizens throughout New York State  to petition  their local governments to adopt resolutions and/or ordinances that:

  • support  A10490’s  requirement that a moratorium be effected in New York State until 120 days after the Environmental Protection Agency submits its report on hydraulic fracturing;  and
  • amend  or enact zoning laws which preserve and protect the local citizenry and their natural resources.

An example of a zoning ordinance written  in Nockamixon, PA is available here. Although  Pennsylvania and New York State regulations are often baffling  in their differences,   the language of the Ordinance is instructive;  as is a reading of this article and its links which help explain  the legal reasoning that New York  and Pennsylvania  State courts might bring to considerations of local zoning ordinances that regulate drilling. An important legal tenet is that the decision of a  State Supreme Court may be cited as precedent in other states in the absence of  more weighty legal decisions.  That does not  mean the precedent will stick,  but it does mean it will be treated with value  when a different state court weighs similar legal issues.

Hodgepodge: Sullivan County Leases, David Jones


IN SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY:    According to an article on the front page of the  March 9, 2010  Sullivan County Democrat, “On March 2, the Sullivan County Clerk’s Office filed four new gas leases in western Sullivan County…  Industry insiders have acknowledged that leasing slowed down while everyone awaits New York State’s finalization of new gas drilling rules.  Those rules are expected to go into effect later this year, and with Sullivan County sitting on what has been identified as a deep and potentially plentiful source of Marcellus Shale natural gas, industry interest has reappeared. ”

According to the article, of the four recently-signed leases,  two  are for mineral rights in the Town of Delaware,  one is in  the Town of Cochecton and one is in the Town of Fremont.

This  Thursday  (March 18, 2010)  the Sullivan County Legislature will meet in  full at  2:00 PM in the Government Center at 100 North Street in Monticello, NY.   In accord with  Breathing’s March 5, 2010 article about Sullivan County’s current efforts to update its  Hazards Mitigation Plan,   the  March 18th  meeting is open to the public and would be one venue in which to ask that the Legislature conduct public meetings  where  residents can hear from and ask questions of  Commissioners of  Public Health, Public Works, Planning and our  emergency responders.  The linked article  contains other suggestions that might be made to the Sullivan County Legislature.

The Delaware Town Board is meeting tomorrow night (Tuesday March 17th) at 7:00 PM  in Hortonville.

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On March 11, 2010,  The River Reporter published  a  letter to the editor from James Barth in which he alleged that David Jones, drilling and hydraulic fracturing proponent and  a member of  Northern Wayne Property Owners’ Association, “… either alone, or with partners, has purchased,  just since the natural gas boom talk started, the following acreage: In June of 2008, Jones Partners LP purchased 185 acres in Berlin Township for $1,000,000. In August of 2008, David C. Jones purchased 68.99 acres in Damascus Township for $438,500. In May of 2009, Ruth M. and David C. Jones purchased two plots of land in Preston Township that totaled 181.75 acres at a cost of $825,000.  Therefore, in the 12-month period between June of 2008 and June of 2009, Mr. Jones and partners seem to have paid $2,263,500 for 435.75 acres of land. During this period, Mr. Jones has been a vocal proponent of high volume, slick water hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling into the Marcellus Shale.”  (Mr. Barth cites to “tax assessment public records.”  By following the link and searching for “Jones” and “Jones Partners,”  you will find the records referenced by Mr. Barth.)

After reading Mr. Barth’s letter,  Breathing phoned  Mr. Jones and  asked  whether or not  he’d made  the 2008-2009 land purchases  and if so,  where he’d gotten  the necessary funding ($2,263,499).

Mr. Jones —  who has been unfailingly civil and generous with his time  in our conversations —  provided answers off-the-record but would not address his real estate purchases  publicly.

He did have opinions concerning news that the Wayne Highlands School District is considering leasing its gas rights to HessNewfield.  “It’s a great idea to lease school property.  The wells have to be far enough from  a school in case of an accident — because you never know — a minimum of 500 feet from any structure.  Our  local and school taxes are too high.”

At the  March 9, 2010  Wayne Highlands Board of Education  meeting, members of the public expressed concerns over siting gas wells on school property.  Some referenced a recent talk in Callicoon by Mayor Tillman in which he vehemently opposed drilling in school yards and also explained why children should not be exposed  to  air and water toxins which  might  result  from such drilling.

On the question of whether or not Pennsylvania should levy a severance  tax on gas extraction  (as has been done in all other extraction states  except New York and Pennsylvania)  Mr. Jones was unequivocal, “No.  We already tax royalties paid to lessors.  There are other ways to raise state revenues.  For one thing, we could lease public lands.”

A February 12, 2010  press release from  PA State Representative John Siptroth roundly criticized expanding gas leases on PA’s  State  lands.  In part,  Siptroth’s press release reads, “‘The local recreation industry would suffer great loss, as would hunting and fishing activities….  The few local jobs created by the gas industry are not worth losing hundreds more jobs that depend on Pike County’s pristine environment.’  Siptroth has co-sponsored House Bill 2235, which would put a five-year moratorium on leasing additional state forest land for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region.  The State Forest Natural Gas Lease Moratorium Act would give the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources sole discretion after the moratorium ends Dec. 31, 2015 to determine if state forests can withstand additional natural gas exploration.”

In his January 28, 2010 letter  to Governor Rendell,  Representative Siptroth writes, “Today more than one-third of the entire State Forest — over 700,000 acres — is either already under lease or acreage on which the mineral rights are not owned by the state.  At least 100 wells are slated to be drilled in the State Forest in the coming year, and it’s expected that we could have as many as 1,500 well pads with 5,000-6,000 wells drilled over the next decade on the State Forest land that was leased in just the last 18 months.”

David Jones also believes  it would be appropriate for the Town of Damascus to  change its zoning regulations to permit gas extraction in its Rural Residential District.  “It will benefit residents.  It’s what  the majority of people want.”

As to the ability of  Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to regulate and oversee gas extraction,  Mr. Jones stated,  “We need more  DEP  inspectors  but I believe that’s being taken care of.  There’s a new field office in Scranton.”

Mr. Jones is referencing announcements made in January and February by Pennsylvania’s Governor Rendell and DEP Secretary John  Hanger which stated, in part,   “DEP will hire 68 permitting and inspection staff, including 10 for the new Scranton office, in response to expectations that the industry will apply for 5,200 new Marcellus Shale drilling permits in 2010—nearly three times the number of permits issued during 2009.”

According to DEP’s own records, there are significant discrepancies between the numbers of  wells permitted during 2009 (6,240 vs.  2,543)  and the number drilled since 2005  (19, 165 vs. 18,796).  Also according to DEP’s records,  there were 9,848 well inspections during 2009 which revealed  3,361 violations and  resulted in 678 enforcements.  (Numbers are culled from DEP’s 2009 Year End Report and its  2009  Year End Workload Report.  Other numbers are available at the 2010 Permit and Rig Activity Report.   The reports can be found at:  http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/minres/OILGAS/oilgas.htm

Mr. Jones was willing to be quoted also  about protecting  the Delaware River and its environs from  a proposed power line which would traverse three National Parks.  According to The National Park Service (NPS) : “We would like to inform you of a new planning effort at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.  PPL Electric Utilities Corporation and PSE&G, have proposed to upgrade and expand a power transmission line from Susquehanna (Berwick, Pennsylvania)  to Roseland, New Jersey (the S-R Line)…that currently crosses the three Parks….”   (The National Park Service’s Scoping Newsletter on  PPL-PSEG’s  proposed power line upgrade and expansion is  here.)

Although three plans —  Projects A, B and C — have been debated during the past few years,  the National Park Service gave the nod to Plan B in 2009. (All three of the planned routes are mapped here with brief descriptions of the areas proposed for transection.  Another good breakdown is offered by The Times Tribune with links to NPS  maps.)

However, NPS  has re-opened  discussions recently  on the  three possible routes and that  has Mr. Jones concerned.  “Plan A is the worst of the three,”  he said.  “The Park Service will have to buy land,  clear land and  put a tower on an island that floods.  It’s going to cost.  The environmental impacts will be greater than from Plan B.  We’ve got  an endangered cactus species where  Route A would go.  Not many people know that.   There’s a crystal-clear native trout stream. The line will go over one of my campgrounds.  Nobody will want to camp there.  The Delaware Water Gap is the gateway to  the Delaware River recreational area.  It’s  going to look great  with power lines draped across it,” he said sarcastically.  “New Jersey needs power but it doesn’t want the lines.  It’s a waste of energy to run them so far from where the population need is.”

Mr. Jones suggested  that,  “[The power lines] should go where the people are — where more people will be using the power.  But they’ll fight that.”

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*For more on Chesapeake, please read Breathing’s article,  “Chesapeake Energy and Penn State’s Robert Watson :  Who Are Those Guys?