Second NY Judge Rules: Towns Can Block Fracking

Opponents and supporters of fracking walk into the last of four public hearings on proposed gas drilling regulations in New York state on Nov. 30, 2011. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Second NY Judge Rules: Towns Can Block Fracking

For the second time this week, New York state judges have rules that towns have the power to ban fracking despite a state regulation asserting they cannot.

Environmental groups celebrated the pair of decisions, which say "that ordinary citizens, and the local governments who listen to them, have power to determine the character of their communities for themselves," the group New York Water Rangers said in a release.

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The Associated Press reports:

While only the state can set rules for oil and gas drilling in New York, local governments have the right to ban the industry from operating within their borders, a state court judge ruled Friday in the second opinion of its kind this week.

The ruling, seen as a victory for local "home rule" and a blow to the industry and gas lease-holding landowners, was handed up by State Supreme Court Judge Donald Cerio in Otsego County. He rejected the claim of a landowner who argued that the rural town of Middlefield's zoning ordinance enacted last year violated a 1981 state law that trumps local laws when it comes to regulating oil and gas drilling.

On Tuesday, Justice Phillip Rumsey came to the same conclusion in a lawsuit challenging a gas-drilling ban in the Tompkins County town of Dryden. The Middlefield law was challenged by Cooperstown Holstein, which has gas leases on about 380 acres in the town. The Dryden law was challenged by Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which has spent more than $5 million leasing and developing 22,000 acres in that town. [...]

"We think it's a great decision," said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued in court in defense of the town's zoning law. "It's a very thorough analysis of the legislative history and the passage of the supercession clause. The court comes to the conclusion that it is perfectly possible to have the state regulate the method of gas drilling while localities retain the power to regulate land use through zoning and local laws."

If the decisions stand, it could be a major blow to the shale gas industry in New York. In towns across the southern half of the state, anti-drilling activists for four years have been pitted against industry supporters who say the economically stressed region desperately needs the jobs, taxes, and other financial benefits the industry has brought to Pennsylvania and other states in the Marcellus Shale region.

More than 50 New York communities have enacted gas-drilling bans at the urging of residents who have circulated petitions saying the potential benefits of development aren't enough to risk polluting water supplies, endangering public health, and transforming a rural landscape into an industrial one.

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