The Middlefield town board will begin public hearings on its Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance in March. The regulations are designed to strengthen the town's prohibition of natural gas exploration and extraction. The changes were recommended by the town planning board in response to a request from the town board in December.

Planning Board Co-Chairman Dr. Henry Weil said the town board asked the planning board to look at the gas drilling issue in December because of concerns raised by many Middlefield residents.

Weil said the planning board believes the town's zoning ordinance already prohibits gas exploration and extraction. The changes, he said, will strengthen the existing prohibition.

"It's not permitted, so we believe it is de facto prohibited," Weil said at the board's Feb. 9 meeting, adding that 30 people attended a public hearing held by the planning board and virtually all of them wanted to see more-exclusive wording.

Planning Board Co-Chairman Neal Newman told the town board members the board had looked at all sides of the issue.

He said there are precedents for zoning out some land uses entirely, but the town does take a chance it will be challenged in court. Towns have zoned out mining operations, and those local laws have been upheld by the Court of Appeals. Zoning out gas exploration and extraction has not been tested in the courts, he said.

The changes to the zoning ordinance also prohibit heavy industrial land uses in the town.

The proposed changes to the zoning ordinance say, in part, "Heavy industry has the potential for large-scale environmental pollution when equipment malfunctions or human errors occur."

The public hearings will be held during the town board's next meeting, which will be at 7:30 p.m. March 8 in the town hall. Copies of the changes to the master plan and zoning ordinance will be available from the town clerk later this month.

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