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December 10, 2013

Hartwick, Meredith mull drilling bans

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The debate over gas drilling has frothed up in two more local towns — the Otsego County town of Hartwick and the Delaware County town of Meredith — where residents are wrestling with initiatives that would keep out heavy industry.

Public hearings were held in both towns Monday night. Meredith will have a second forum 6 p.m. Thursday night at the East Meredith firehouse, said Meredith Town Supervisor Keitha Capouya.

The Meredith proposal would impose a ban on gas and oil drilling, chemical manufacturing and other forms of heavy industry.

The proposal in Hartwick calls for an 8-month moratorium on all heavy industry, including gas drilling. Proponents say it is needed to protect the town while it attempts to enact a new zoning law. Opponents say it is unneeded and sends a bad message to entrepreneurs and employers.

“It would paint our town as a place where business is not welcome,” said Robert Birch, a lawyer who lives in Hartwick and has a law practice in Cooperstown. He said he sees no possibility that shale gas drilling will be allowed in New York within the next several years, and even then the industry would have no interest in any communities north of Otego in southern Otsego County.

“It’s just an unnecessary law,” Birch said.

James Herman, a Hartwick resident who was the Otsego County Conservation Association Citizen of the Year in 2010, said more than 75 percent of Hartwick residents who responded to a mailed survey signaled they favor a drilling ban.

He said the fact that the natural gas industry already has major pipelines north and south of the town, and is proposing to build the Constitution Pipeline near communities along Interstate 88, suggests it will eventually try to place drilling operations in upstate New York.

“They are laying down the infrastructure,” he said. He also pointed out some Hartwick landowners had signed leases with drilling companies, but it was not immediately known if any of those leases are still in effect. The town already has a comprehensive plan, and the moratorium, he said, would dovetail with the effort to put a zoning law on the books.

Robert Harlem, one of the founders of the pro-business Citizen Voices and the president of Oneonta Block Co., said his group is staying out of the Hartwick debate, noting the community, unlike the city and town of Oneonta, does not loom as a target for manufacturers or heavy industry.

Harlem said he would prefer to see communities tell the business community what types of industry they want rather than list the ones they don’t want.

“This will be up to the town fathers to decide,” he said. “But if they don’t want heavy industry, just don’t cry when opportunities aren’t presented to them.”

Ellen Pope, the director of the anti-drilling Otsego 2000, called the proposed moratorium an opportunity for Hartwick residents to define the type of community they wish to live in while blocking “unfettered industrialization.”

The ability of New York local municipalities to keep out drilling is the subject of a legal fight now before the the state’s highest court. Middlefield dairy farmer Jennifer Huntington is challenging a drilling ban enacted by her town in 2011, and the gas industry is challenging a similar ban in the Tompkins County town of Dryden, contending only state government can regulate gas and oil extraction.

The towns have prevailed in lower courts. The Court of Appeals has not yet set a hearing date for the Middlefield and Dryden cases.