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April 8, 2011

Towns could set trend with fracking bans

By Tom Grace
Cooperstown News Bureau

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Otsego County's municipalities could be in the vanguard of governments using land use laws to ban natural gas drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Otsego County Planner Psalm Wyckoff said Thursday that county Planning Director Terry Bliss recently attended a gas conference of county officials in the Southern Tier, and "he asked whether anyone there had municipalities moving to ban drilling with zoning."

Attendees from other counties reported knowing of no municipality within their counties that had done it, she said, adding that the conference was not a statewide meeting.

Other municipalities have taken steps to ban fracking -- the injection of horizontal wells with millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to stimulate production. The city of Buffalo banned it in February, following a similar move by Pittsburgh.

The Buffalo law bans drillers from fracking in the city, and bars the disposal of drilling wastewater or other production wastes within city limits, according to Frack Action, a group that opposes the practice.

Tompkins County has banned fracking on county land. And the New York City and Syracuse watersheds have been exempted from a set of rules being considered by state Department of Environmental Conservation that would allow firms to drill horizontally and frack without a local environmental review.

But these actions are not based on the concept that well-constructed zoning laws can sometimes trump statewide regulation.

As the argument about fracking continues, with industry spokesmen and land coalition members saying it's safe and opponents warning it threatens drinking water and air quality, four towns in northern Otsego County are moving to ban it, and others in the county are taking steps that might allow them to follow suit.

Three towns, Middlefield, Otsego and Cherry Valley, are moving forward with initiatives to use their land use laws to ban heavy industry, including drilling and fracking. Middlefield is farthest along and might adopt a zoning law at the town's Tuesday meeting, according to Neal Newman, acting co-chairman of the town Planning Board.

"It could happen that night, but it might also be next month," he said Thursday.

Town officials want to make sure they have the law worded just right, he said.

Cherry Valley is considering a law that would prohibit "heavy industry," including "the exploration for natural gas, extraction of natural gas, natural gas processing facilities, exploration for crude oil, extraction of crude oil, oil refineries, coal mining and coal processing."

Earlier this week, the town's Zoning Committee voted to forward the proposed Land Use Law to the Town Board with a recommendation for approval.

The town of Otsego has proposed changes to its land use law regarding drilling and fracking, and these are likely to be reviewed at the county Planning Board's May meeting.

The town of Springfield, which does not have a zoning law, last week sent a proposed law meant to ban drilling and fracking to the county Planning Board for review. But this week, the town withdrew its request for review.

Bliss noted by e-mail that Springfield Town Supervisor Bill Elsey "explained that town officials have chosen to re-examine the document and make some changes. He expects that the referral will be resubmitted in the near future."

Wyckoff said other towns, including Butternuts, have been looking at ways that drilling and fracking might be zoned out, and Roseboom has been working on a comprehensive plan.

"A comprehensive plan doesn't regulate anything. It's a vision, an assessment of where the town is now and what the town's people want for the future," she said. `It's a list of goals and usually includes a lists of actions to achieve those goals."

While comprehensive plans don't ban anything, they can lead to land use laws -- specific measures to accomplish those goals, which in Middlefield and Cherry Valley, at least, may include a ban on drilling and fracking.