Starkey Citizens for a Clean & Healthy Environment
Strictly Business: Home Rule Hits Home Run in Fracking Debate

Suppose you are part of a family that owns an acre of wooded land that’s been in the family for generations.

Suppose some Johnny Appleseed group wants to pay you to be able to take down the native timber on your acre and replace it with groves of fruit trees. After consulting with other family members, you turn the group down. But not willing to take “no” for an answer, the Appleseed group goes to court in an effort to overturn your refusal.

If the scenario I’ve just laid out sounds slightly familiar, it should. Two years ago, the Town of Dryden voted to ban fracking within its borders. It was promptly sued by the energy company that wanted to drill there, if, and when, New York lifts its fracking moratorium. To make a long story short, lower courts upheld Dryden’s action and the energy company appealed to a higher court, which earlier this month upheld the lower court ruling.

Please don’t fret. I’m not about to delve into the constitutionality of some corporate entity trying to deny local government the right to determine how its land will be used. I’ll leave that to the pundits who occupy the pay grades several levels above mine. Instead, I want to talk about the courage it must have taken to file the original challenge to Dryden’s local zoning law.

I never met Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner. But I read what she said after the latest court victory: “We stood up for what we knew was right and we won. The people who live here and know the town best should be the ones deciding how our land is used, not some executive in a corporate office park thousands of miles away.” And she sounds like someone I’d like knowing.

The ruling created an expected response from either side of the fracking debate. New Yorkers Against Fracking loved it, saying, “the decision shows that our democracy in New York State still works and in this David and Goliath battle — we can win.” Meanwhile, The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York hated it, saying, “Local municipalities are simply not equipped to decide issues affecting our state and national interests in producing clean domestic energy.” In addition to upholding Dryden’s ban, the same court upheld a similar ban in the Town of Middlefield. But I wonder how the courts would have ruled if New York had already approved the method of drilling for natural gas before the two towns passed their bans. I’ll leave that one for the pundits.

According to Earthjustice, the public interest law organization that represented Dryden in the latest appeal, more than 159 municipalities in New York have passed bans or moratoriums on fracking. What’s more, the group says, some 350 communities across the country have voted to take official action — from non-binding resolutions to improved protections to outright bans.

With the action of the appeals court, all 509 communities are standing on firmer ground. And I’m hoping that the drilling companies and the communities that are considering fracking bans take notice.

In closing, I’ll let Mary Ann Sumner have the last word.

“The first oil and gas company to sue us backed down. The second went bankrupt. They both lost against us in court,” she is quoted as saying. “When will the oil and gas industry get the message: bullying communities isn’t good for business?”

G. Jeffrey Aaron is the business writer for the Star-Gazette. His column on business happenings and issues appears weekly on the Sunday business page. To contact him call (607) 271-8288 of e-mail him at jgaaron@gannett.com.

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