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February 24, 2012

Middlefield wins 'home rule' case in court

Victory comes on the heels of similar ruling for Dryden

COOPERSTOWN — In a major setback for the natural gas industry, a state judge today upheld the legality of the town of Middlefield's ban on drilling for natural gas, marking the second victory of the week for home rule advocates out to stop hydrofracking.

Acting State Supreme Court Judge Donald Cerio, in an 11-page decision, said there was "no support" for claims that the state Legislature, by enacting the Environrmental Conservation Law in 1981, intended to "abrogate the constitutional and statutory authority vested in local municipalities to enact legislation affecting land use."

The lawsuit aimed at upending revisions to Middlefield's zoning law that were enacted last year was brought by Jennifer Huntington, owner of Cooperstown Holstein Corp., a company that has leased nearly 400 acres in the town to a gas drilling company.

Huntington's lawyers have claimed the ban strips landowner of their mineral rights and that the Environmental Conservation Law places all regulation authority over drilling with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Cerio, who was assigned the case after Otsego County judges recused themselves, wrote: "There is no language contained with the legislative history which serves to support plaintiff's claim tha the supersession clause enacted was intended to impact, let alone diminish or eliminate, a local municipality's right to enact legislation pertaining to land use."

The decision came on the heels of a similar one issued Wednesday by State Supreme Court Judge Donald Rumsey, who upheld the town of Dryden's move to ban gas drilling.

Unlike the Dryden case, in the Middlefield litigation, several local organizations, as well as the Village of Cooperstown, were permitted to files friend of the court briefs, backing the town's arguments that it was entirely within its authority to update its zoning law to keep out gas drillers.

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