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February 16, 2013

Dropping home-rule bill too costly

The Daily Star

---- — If Michael P. Joy gets his way, Sen. James Seward’s decision to drop a home-rule bill could end up costing Otego millions.

The attorney for Lenape Resources Inc. has threatened to sue the town over a moratorium on natural gas drilling that Joy says is stifling his client’s business interests.

In a letter to the Otego board members, Joy wrote: “The cost of taking Lenape’s oil and gas development rights, which are on record in the Otsego County clerk’s office, could be tens of millions of dollars.”

A lawsuit would put Otego in the same company as Middlefield, Dryden, Avon and other towns whose attempts to stop or limit gas drilling are also being fought.

No conclusive ruling has been made at the highest level about whether “home rule” — the concept that municipalities have the legal authority to curtail industrial development — will be the de facto law of the land in New York.

But it would seem that a couple of initial victories are good enough for Seward. His spokesman, Jeff Bishop, told The Daily Star in January that “as far as that legislation goes, it’s been decided on by the courts at this point.”

We think Dennis Holbrook and Jennifer Huntington might disagree. They are preparing to return to court to defend their lawsuits against the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, respectively. Huntington’s appeal is scheduled for next month.

Holbrook, Huntington and Lenape are all prepared to spend big bucks because they think they have a shot at striking down local laws that they believe overstep towns’ rights. So what would it have cost Seward to follow through on his legislation?

Maybe some political capital. In the increasingly fractious fight over fracking, even the home-rule concept, which once seemed like a politically safe compromise, has drawn scorn from some who are eager for drilling to begin. But the concept would seem to at least have the governor’s blessing.

In June, word came that the Cuomo administration was preparing to back a plan that would limit drilling to those communities in the Southern Tier that expressly welcomed the controversial practice. The news was seen by some as a signal that towns would do well to get moratoriums or bans in place before the state releases its regulations on drilling.

But without legislation or a conclusive court decision on the books, towns such as Otego that have tried to get their ducks in a row before the state acts are facing the cost of legal action. We’re disappointed that Seward couldn’t shoulder the relatively small risk of seeing his legislation through. It could have saved some local taxpayers a lot of money.