Last week, a panel of judges from the New York State Appellate Division, Third Department, ruled unanimously that Dryden can ban gas drilling through zoning. The gas companies can still appeal to New York's highest court, but because the decision was unanimously against them they have to ask permission.
The key part of this case, to me, is that the gas industry and its supporters have pushed regularly to keep decision-making as far away as possible from the people who would feel the effects of their operations. New York State might not be as eager to extract every drop as, say, Pennsylvania or Texas, but state government is (for example) far more eager to do that than many places.
What is the gas industry afraid of?
They're afraid of places like Dryden:
Where residents mapped the leases gas companies had managed to secure quietly, reassuring residents individually that it would all be all right, and figured out the bigger picture.
Where residents knew better than to take seriously Henry Kramer's claims that Dryden would have to pay out massive fees and settlements over gas company lawsuits.
I went up to Albany to see the oral arguments on the appeal, and there was a moment that really summed it up for me. Judge Peters, the presiding judge, asked attorney Tom West:
Here at page 7 you state that "indeed if municipal prohibitions are allowed, no prudent speculator will ever invest because it will subject to the fickle whim of municipal officials." Are town boards fickle?
West: That was written in response to a landfill case I have where the board has flipped 3-2 over several years and several elections....
Peters: Isn't that the voters' prerogative?
West: I shouldn't have said fickle.
West and his friends are all about creating a safe long-term environment for their investments, and can't imagine that local political conversations over a safe long-term environment for localities should be allowed to interfere with that. Fortunately, the court saw through that argument.
In an age when much of New York State politics is about insulating politicians from voters, it's delightful to see a court rule that Albany hasn't claimed all the power for itself. Voters' voices matter on the local level, and have power over issues that can transform the local landscape. Towns are a key middle ground between everyone doing what they want without regard for their neighbors and centralizing decision-making in Albany.
Update: Here's a state of play article looking at the interactions between state and local government and a variety of ways they could go.Posted by simon at May 6, 2013 5:56 AM in