By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — Helped by two Democrats, a united slate of Otsego County GOP lawmakers pushed through an endorsement Wednesday of a Constitution Pipeline alternative route that would put a stretch of the natural gas transmission system inside the county near Interstate 88.
The vote came after more than 50 people — most of them opponents of the pipeline project proposed by Williams Partners and Cabot Oil and Gas — weighed in on the project whose environmental impact has yet to be determined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
After three hours of listening to those citizens and debating the project among themselves, eight members of the Board of Representatives voted in favor of the so-called Route M option, and five voted against it. Joining the six Republicans present — Rep. Pauline Koren, R-Milford, was absent — were Reps. Linda Rowinski, D-Oneonta, and Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta.
In terms of the weighted votes reflecting the differing populations of the representative districts, the backers of the pipeline had 3,621 to 1,920 against Route M. The weighted votes carried by Koren — 626 — would not have made a difference had the first-term legislator attended the meeting.
The pipeline planners have said Route M is not their preferred pathway because of the sloping terrain I-88 follows and because of the narrow work space with which construction crews would have to contend.
The representatives held their vote in the county office building. They returning there after listening to a parade of speakers on both sides of the issue in the county courthouse.
Following the vote, Adrian Kuzminski, moderator of the anti-drilling group Sustainable Otsego, said he was deeply disappointed in the actions of Rowinski and Stuligross and that he hoped to field anti-pipeline candidates to seek their county board seats next year.
“This was a litmus test for the county representatives,” he said. “They acted precipitously, and they haven’t done their due diligence and they haven’t done their homework. From our point of view, we could not support people who voted this way.”
Among those calling for the county board to back Route M were: Robert Harlem, president of Oneonta Block Co. and a founding member of the pro-growth group Citizens Voices; Richard Downey of the Unatego Area Landowners Association; Edward Zaengle, a Maryland lawyer who works with landowner groups; and Otsego County Chamber Director Barbara Ann Heegan.
Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller also sent the board a letter in support of Route M, contending it would be beneficial to the region’s “short-term and long-term growth” and should be regarded as “completely unrelated to the decision on hydrofracking.”
Rowinski, who sponsored the resolution, said it was important that the board support the resolution Wednesday because FERC’s deadline for accepting scoping comments on the pipeline’s impact is Tuesday.
In explaining the resolution, Rowinski said, “We are not asking FERC to approve the pipeline or not.” She said the resolution was a message to FERC that the county board supports alternative Route M “should FERC grant a federal certificate of public convenience and necessity to the project.”
The resolution was highly favorable to the pipeline project. One section states: “This Board of Representatives has determined that the pipeline will produce beneficial short-term and long-term economic impacts resulting from jobs, sales, income and property tax revenue, and from potential future residential, commercial and industrial natural gas service to Otsego County residents provided by local municipalities and public utilities.”
But Colleen Blacklock, an Oneonta acupuncturist who noted she lives in Rowinski’s district and is a mother of two, questioned the stated rationales for the project. She took direct aim at her local representative, maintaining the board had not adequately researched the pipeline’s implications.
“Linda, I’m sure you have good intentions, but the road to hell was paved with good intentions,” Blacklock said. “Your proposed resolution to have the county support the so-called Constitution Pipeline is a loud signal to government and industry to open the door to gas drilling in Otsego County. Pipeline equals drilling, period.”
Nicole Dillingham, president of the environmental group Otsego 2000, urged the board to hold off action, saying it has undertaken no study of the environmental impacts. “We will appear incredibly ignorant if we purport to adopt a resolution now when our federal government is about to review all of this data over the course of many months, maybe a year,” Dillingham said. “This is not a good message for Otsego County. We are smarter than that.”
Downey, noting his group represents the owners of 30,000 acres of land, said local school districts near the pipeline would see an infusion of new revenue and could potentially avail themselves of natural gas from the transmission system. A school board member in Otego, Downey said a local source of natural gas could save school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars and spare teachers from layoffs.
Also favoring the resolution was Jennifer Huntington of Cooperstown, who is waging a court battle to overturn the fracking ban enacted by the town of Middlefield last year. That ban has been upheld by a lower court, and since then six additional towns in the county zoned out gas drilling.
When the board members took up the resolution, Stuligross noted she had not made up her mind until she heard from both sides of the pipeline divide. “If a pipeline goes through,” she said, “we might as well benefit.”
County Rep. Beth Rosenthal, D-Roseboom, observed that those who favor drilling often say they are on the side of landowner rights. However, she noted, they show no empathy for those landowners whose property could be accessed for the pipeline through eminent domain proceedings.
“Why do their landowner rights not count?” she asked before voting against the resolution.
Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Springfield, said the longtime presence of the Tennessee Gas pipeline in his district has help bring retail shops to Richfield Springs. He said he has never experienced any problems with that pipeline near his home.
Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, argued that those pitching the resolution had failed to do sufficient research and supporters of the Route M resolution “are going to be voting for non-due diligence and poor governance.”
Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, said it was “probably inevitable” that the pipeline will be constructed, pointing out that President Barack Obama favors natural gas development and wields political control over FERC.
“The only question is who is going to have any say over where it goes, and it would be irresponsible for us not to have our voices lined up to say where it should go,” Powers said.
Contacted by The Daily Star, Christopher Stockton, spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline, said he believes the county board’s vote “will get FERC’s attention” because it represents the views of elected officials put into office by large numbers of people.
Stockton said pipeline representatives are continuing to reach out to potentially impacted landowners in order to develop the “least impactful” pathway for the 121-mile line that will run gas from Pennsyvlvania to the town of Wright in Schoharie County.
In addition to Rowinski, Stuligross, Powers and McCarty, those backing the pipeline included board Chairwoman Kathleen Clark, R-Otego, Reps. Edwin Frazier Jr., R-Unadilla, Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington, and Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester.
Opposing the resolution, in addition to Kosmer, Rosenthal and Koutnik, were Rich Murphy, D-Town of Oneonta, and Catherine Rothenberger, D-City of Oneonta.