COOPERSTOWN -- In a major setback for the natural gas industry, a state judge Friday upheld the legality of the town of Middlefield's ban on drilling for natural gas, marking the second victory of the week for home-rule advocates out to stop hydrofracking.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Donald Cerio, in an 11-page decision, said there was "no support" for claims that the state Legislature, by enacting the Environmental Conservation Law in 1981, intended to "abrogate the constitutional and statutory authority vested in local municipalities to enact legislation affecting land use."

The lawsuit aimed at upending revisions to Middlefield's zoning law that were enacted last year was brought by Jennifer Huntington, owner of Cooperstown Holstein Corp., a company that has leased nearly 400 acres in the town to a gas drilling company.

Huntington's lawyers have claimed the ban strips landowners of their mineral rights and that the Environmental Conservation Law places all regulation authority over drilling with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

However, Cerio ruled towns do have the right to chart their own destiny when it comes to land use -- and drew a sharp distinction between the meaning of regulation and banning.

"The state maintains control over the 'how' of such procedures while the municipalities maintain control over the 'where' of such exploration," he reasoned.

Cerio, who was assigned the case after Otsego County judges recused themselves, wrote: "There is no language contained with the legislative history which serves to support plaintiff's claim that the supersession clause enacted was intended to impact, let alone diminish or eliminate, a local municipality's right to enact legislation pertaining to land use."

The decision came on the heels of a similar one issued Wednesday by State Supreme Court Judge Donald Rumsey, who upheld the town of Dryden's move to ban gas drilling.

Energy industry lawyer Thomas West of Albany, who was on the losing side in both the Middlefield and Dryden cases, called Friday's ruling "a direct stake in the heart of the landowners who were hoping to see gas leasing start up again in New York."

"This will send a strong message to the industry that New York State is off limits until this issue is resolved," he said. While no decision on a possible appeal has been made, he said he expected the two cases will eventually be heard by the state Appellate Division.

Unlike the Dryden case, in the Middlefield litigation, several local organizations, as well as the Village of Cooperstown, were permitted to file friend-of-the-court briefs, backing the town's argument that it was within its authority to update its zoning law to keep out gas drillers.

"We are extremely pleased by Judge Cerio's forceful and clear decision supporting home rule," said Nicole Dillingham, president of the Board of Directors of Otsego 2000, one of the environmental groups supporting Middlefield.

"The towns have the power to regulate land use within their borders," Dillingham said. "There can be no doubt of this after reading Judge Cerio's decision."

Middlefield Town Attorney David Clinton said, "The people who are proponents of our law are obviously jubilant tonight. I'm sure there are going to be some people who see this as a lost economic opportunity. But the gas is not lost. It's still here."

Advocates of the drilling ban have argued that hydrofracking was inconsistent with the town's rural character and that the activity could lead to toxic contaminants ending up in ground water. Brewery Ommegang, which also submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the drilling ban, had indicated it would have to consider relocating if drilling began on Huntington's land. The brewery is within close proximity of the Cooperstown Holstein tract.

Middlefield Town Supervisor David Bliss said he was "elated" with the ruling. "It supports our position that a zoning law is not a regulation," Bliss said.

A grassroots group of local anti-fracking residents, calling themselves Middlefield Neighbors, started to raise funds after Huntington filed the lawsuit in order to pay for attorneys the town would need to deal with the litigation. The group has raised more than $50,000.

Clinton said the Middlefield and Dryden cases could be rendered moot if legislation clarifying local towns' right to zone out drilling -- a measure proposed by Sen. James Seward, R-Milford -- is passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo last year lifted a moratorium on permits for gas drilling and the Department of Environmental Conservation could begin to award permits to drillers later this year after completing its review of draft rules that would govern hydrofracking.

West predicted that fracking foes will use the pair of rulings to pressure more and more towns to adopt bans on gas drilling.


Trending Video