An Upstate New York town fighting to preserve its way of life is getting some legal help from a coalition of 53 other municipalities, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, and a coalition of businesses, legal experts, and environmental groups.
The coalition filed briefs late yesterday in two court cases over whether an oil and gas company should be allowed to overrule local zoning laws limiting industrial oil and gas development. The lawsuit was initially brought by the privately-held Anschutz Exploration Corporation, owned by billionaire Phillip Anschutz (net worth: $7.5 billion), against the Town of Dryden (population: 14,500).
The company brought its lawsuit after the Dryden Town Board approved a change to its zoning ordinance that prohibited use of land within the town for oil and gas development activities, including fracking. The Dryden Town Board’s unanimous, bipartisan vote followed a petition drive and a series of public hearings, in which residents spoke out 3 to 1 in favor of the change.
“The people of Dryden want to preserve the special character of our town and make sure it continues to be a healthy community for generations to come,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner. “The oil and gas industry may wish it were otherwise, but municipalities have the right to determine what types of development are appropriate within their borders. We are firmly committed to defending that right.”
Yesterday’s filing follows news last week that the State of New York had quietly moved to issue revised regulations for hydraulic fracturing or fracking, in which drillers blast millions of gallons of chemically treated water into the ground to force out gas. The revised regulations, which have come under fire for preceding a study into the health impacts of fracking, puts the state one step closer to allowing the controversial practice to proceed in New York.
“If the state chooses to allow fracking in spite of the public’s grave concerns, local communities have no choice but to defend themselves,” said Caroline Town Supervisor Don Barber. “We all know that impacts from gas drilling do not end at county lines, just as they don’t end at property lines.”
In February, New York State Supreme Courts ruled in favor of both Dryden and Middlefield. Anschutz appealed the Dryden decision. Last month, Norse Energy, a Norwegian company, replaced Anschutz Exploration in the litigation. Last week, Norse filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings. In spite of the towns’ lower court victories, yet another drilling company has just decided to try its luck in the courts: Lenape Resources filed a lawsuit last week to force the citizens of Avon to accept fracking.
A coalition of several dozen businesses, representing the state’s diverse economy, are also lining up in support of Dryden and Middlefield, as is a separate coalition of environmental and conservation groups, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Brewery Ommegang believes towns and citizens have the right and responsibility to control their own destinies, and businesses exist and operate to benefit everyone in the community, not just their shareholders and employees,” said Brewery Ommegang spokesperson Larry Bennett.
“Fracking is an inherently industrial, polluting activity—one that almost by definition changes the character of any residential, agricultural, rural or historic community into which it comes,” said Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “New York’s cities and towns must have the right to protect themselves against fracking and its impacts.”
The Town of Dryden is being represented in the appeal by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. “The Town of Dryden has a very strong case,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg. “The court has ruled that localities retain their longstanding power to regulate land use, including by prohibiting industrial activities such as gas development in their communities. We’ll do everything we can to ensure this victory stands.”
In addition to the lower court victories in Dryden and Middlefield, a Pennsylvania state court has also overturned a portion of a controversial state law that sought to override local zoning laws related to fracking.
“The courts have spoken: local officials have the right to decide what industrial activities are appropriate within their communities,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. “These local decision-makers know what’s best for their towns. Not powerful oil and gas companies.”