As one might expect, the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York — an organization that promotes hydrofracking for natural gas — is ecstatic about the decision Thursday of the state’s highest court to determine whether municipalities have the right of home rule.
“We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will protect the rights of landowners and allow New York to realize the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas while allowing our nation to maintain its course towards energy independence,” read a statement by a lawyer who works with the organization.
But we believe that those on both sides of the contentious fracking debate should welcome the prospect of home rule closure when the Court of Appeals takes up the issue, probably in the spring, with a decision expected in July.
The Otsego County town of Middlefield and the Tompkins County town of Dryden prevailed in state Supreme Court and mid-level appeals court decisions, and it is not unexpected that the case would make its way to the Court of Appeals.
Jennifer Huntington, operator of Cooperstown Holstein Corp., has said a zoning change by Middlefield in 2011 stopped her plans to have a conventional gas well at her property. The appeals court ruling held that the town had the right to ban gas exploration as long as it wasn’t regulating it.
“We hold that (current law) does not preempt, either expressly or impliedly, a municipality’s power to enact a local zoning ordinance banning all activities related to the exploration for, and the production or storage of, natural gas and petroleum within its borders,” the court said.
Make no mistake, this is a very important case that will be carefully watched, particularly by about 50 New York municipalities that have banned gas drilling, and more than 100 that have enacted moratoriums on drilling activities.
It may well be that the appeal will give Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation still more time to delay a decision on whether to permit horizontal hydrofracking in the state.
After the May appeals court ruling, we opined that if the DEC winds up approving fracking in some parts of the state — we are still curious about why the process is banned in the New York City watershed area but up for grabs elsewhere — that “it’s essential that individual communities have the ability to protect themselves from the potential negative impacts of this process.”
While we support the rights of local citizens to have a say in their own futures and we worry about the expense involved with Middlefield going through this litigation, Huntington and others certainly have the right to pursue the case, and the fate of home rule is right where it belongs.