June 11, 2011

Hydrofracking and zoning conversations

Wednesday's agenda meeting was a dense series of conversations around zoning laws of various kinds. They started with a draft hydrofracking ban, which had by the most discussion, and then heard from Town Attorney Mahlon Perkins about the status of his tweaks to the zoning law.

The proposed ban is pretty simple, and seems likely to stay that way. It's a two-page amendment to the current zoning law, accompanied by a longer resolution that's mostly explanatory WHEREAS statements. It says that it clarifies the Dryden zoning law rather than changing it, and that all natural gas drilling is and has been prohibited in the Town under current zoning.

(I'd post a draft, but it changed a lot during the meeting, and I'm pretty certain that it makes more sense to wait a few days to point to the one the Town posts before its likely introduction Wednesday the 15th. The Board hopes to pass it in July.)

Most of that conversation was between Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner, Town Board member Jason Leifer, and Attorney Perkins. Much of that time was Leifer comparing the restrictions of the proposed law and the restrictions of a different, more comprehensive, approach that would ban high-impact industrial uses to bar hydrofracking rather than saying "no gas drilling allowed here".

The zoning conversation was far less detailed, more or less a report from Attorney Perkins on his review of the zoning draft. Since the Town hasn't distributed a draft since January and sections have moved and been renumbered, it wasn't a particularly valuable conversation. Well, except that it clarified that the Board seems to just want to get zoning done and will likely pass the current (I think deeply flawed) draft in July or August.

I worry about both of the laws discussed. I support a hydrofracking ban, but see little reason to ban "tradiitional" wells that use much simpler and less invasive technology. Everything I'd read about local regulation of extractive industries suggested that a simple ban might fail on multiple grounds. Even if a bill clarifying state law to allow towns to handle this through zoning passes, I'm still not certain that this ban would hold up. I would also prefer to see the more comprehensive approach because it seems more likely to limit the impact from surrounding towns that might allow drilling.

In the long run, however, I'm happier with the proposed drilling ban than I am with the zoning. First, I'm very impressed that the Town Board was willing to grapple with questions of a ban when they're certainly busy with other work. The July 1 release of the state's Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement seems to have focused minds.

Second, the proposed ban is likely just the beginning of the conversation. It amends existing zoning law while new zoning is in the works, and lays a foundation for a ban in the new zoning. Concerns about hydrofracking have energized a huge number of people in the Town. Opponents have been far more numerous and visible. The 1600 signatures they collected on the hydrofracking ban petition is even more impressive when you consider that around 1400 votes is the number needed to win most Town elections recently. While we haven't yet heard that much from supporters of drilling, financial interests also have a way of mobilizing people.

Zoning isn't like that. Yes, people who've noticed the conversation look at the map to figure out what's happening to their parcel and their neighborhood, but that conversation doesn't create the same kind of active constituency. It's more abstract, and the dangers of failure, while real, don't normally threaten drinking water or scatter industrial development all over the rural landscape. Everyone has a financial interest in zoning - but except for a few people who want to develop or find themselves disrupted by development, those interests don't drive the same kind of immediate push.

My guess is that this ban is the opening shot of a long conversation. Republican Town Supervisor candidate Bruno Schickel was I think the only person there who questioned the wisdom of doing this, but I'm sure there will be more. It's also a long-term project, likely involving some court decisions and long-term evaluation of the best route to take on drilling. (This article in this morning's Ithaca Journal looks at some of the broader context and conversations in different municipalities.)

Zoning, on the other hand, seems like something the Town Board just wants to get over with. It certainly can be tweaked and updated, and definitely will be over time, but it's far less visible and there are a lot fewer people really focused on that law. The flaws in that law seem likely to stick around much longer.

(Updated to talk a bit more about the more comprehensive approach I prefer.)

Posted by simon at June 11, 2011 7:50 AM in , ,
Note on photos


RickaTee said:

It would be nice to bring more tourism to this area and Gas Drilling would drive any tourism, or home buyers away from this area. I would love to see a ban, or at least the zoning changes to keep gas drilling out of Dryden, and all of Tompkins County. In the meantime, I plan on getting my water tested to prepare for what might come.