As NY high court rules towns can zone out oil and gas operations, trend spreads to other states
Downtown in Dryden, NY. Dryden’s story began in 2009, after residents pressured by oil and gas company representatives to lease their land for gas development learned more about fracking. Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
In a test case pitting community rights against the oil and gas industry, the Court ruled that the towns of Dryden and Middlefield can use local zoning laws to ban heavy industry, including oil and gas operations, within municipal borders.
“Today the Court stood with the people of Dryden and the people of New York to protect their right to self determination. It is clear that people, not corporations, have the right to decide how their community develops,” said Dryden Deputy Supervisor Jason Leifer. “This would not have been possible without the hard work of many of my friends and neighbors and our lawyers Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice and Mahlon Perkins. Today’s ruling shows all of America that a committed group of citizens and public officials can stand together against fearful odds and successfully defend their homes, their way of life, and the environment against those who would harm them all in the name of profit.”
“Heavy industry has never been allowed in our small farming town and three years ago, we decided that fracking was no exception. The oil and gas industry tried to bully us into backing down, but we took our fight all the way to New York’s highest court. And today we won,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner. “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”
Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with the public interest law organization, Earthjustice, represented the Town of Dryden in the case.
“This decision by the Court of Appeals has settled the matter once and for all across New York State and has sent a firm message to the oil and gas industry,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg. “For too long the oil and gas industry has intimidated and abused people, expecting to get away with it. That behavior is finally coming back to haunt them, as communities across the country stand up and say ‘no more.’ Earthjustice is proud to have stood with, and fought on behalf of, one such community.”
Today’s decision gives legal backing to the more than 170 New York municipalities that have passed measures to protect residents from the impacts of the controversial oil and gas development technique. The news also gives a green light to dozens of other New York towns that have been waiting for today’s decision to pass their own local ban.
“Town by town, New Yorkers have taken a stand against fracking. Today’s victory confirms that each of these towns is on firm legal ground,” said Helen Slottje, an Ithaca-based attorney whose legal research inspired New York’s local fracking ban groundswell and who was honored with the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize. “The oil and gas industry tried to take away a fundamental right that pre-dates even the Declaration of Independence: the right of municipalities to regulate local land use. But they failed. The anti-fracking measures passed by Dryden, Middlefield and dozens of other New York municipalities are fully enforceable.”
The decision comes as a growing number of local communities in Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and California are opting to exert community control to guard against the environmental and public health threats of a deregulated, fracking-enabled oil and gas industry rush.
“We did it! This victory is for everyone who loves their town and will fight to the end to protect it,” said Dryden resident Deborah Cipolla-Dennis. “I’m proud of my town and I’m proud of the people in Fort Collins, Colorado, Denton, Texas, Santa Cruz, California and all the others who are standing up to the oil and gas industry.”
Dryden’s story began in 2009, after residents pressured by oil and gas company representatives to lease their land for gas development learned more about fracking, the technique companies planned to use to extract the gas. Residents organized and educated for more than two years under the banner of the Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition (DRAC), ultimately convincing the town board to amend its zoning ordinance in August 2011 to clarify that oil and gas development activities, including fracking, were prohibited.
Just six weeks after the town board passed the measure in a unanimous bi-partisan vote, Anschutz Exploration Corporation (a privately held company owned by a Forbes-ranked billionaire) sued the town. Dryden argued that their right to make local land use decisions, enshrined in the home rule provision of the New York State Constitution, applies to oil and gas development. In February 2012, a state trial court judge agreed. In May 2013, a panel of judges in a mid-level, appeals court unanimously sided yet again with the town. Today’s decision by New York’s highest court is the final ruling in the matter.
The case in Dryden has taken on special significance. Through the course of its legal battle, more than 20,000 people from across the country and globe sent messages to Sumner and her colleagues on the Town Board, expressing support for the town in its legal fight, and a video depicting the town’s fight has garnered more than 80,000 views.
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