While Pa. Lawmakers Consider Stripping Towns of Zoning Authority, a NY Town Heads to Court to Keep It

  • Susan Phillips

Country road in Dryden, N.Y.

Residents of the rural New York town of Dryden will face off in court today against Anschutz Exploration Corporation over who controls local zoning. Dryden, a town of about 14,000 people spread out over 100,000 acres, not far from Ithaca, passed a law in April that bans drilling activity. In September, Anschutz Exploration filed suit challenging the law.
The suit claims only the state has the authority to regulate gas drilling. But Dryden’s board members say industrial activity has never been permitted within the town’s limits.The case will be closely watched by both industry representatives eager to start tapping natural gas in the state’s Marcellus Shale deposits, and by anti-drilling activists worried about environmental degradation.
Unlike Pennsylvania, New York has not yet seen drilling activity due to a temporary moratorium that is expected to be lifted soon.
Dryden farmer and planning board member Martin Hatch says he doesn’t “take kindly” to a company dictating what the town planners can do within their own boundaries.
“Who has the right to decide what fits into our community?” Hatch said during a press conference call. “The people who live here? Or an out of state corporation owned by a billionaire? We think public opinion and the law is on our side.”
A lawyer for the group, Deborah Goldberg, says the state’s court of appeals has ruled in favor of local towns maintaining their zoning rights in the past. But she says she expects this case to be considered carefully by the judge, because its the first of its kind challenging Marcellus Shale drilling and will likely set a precedent.
“We’re hoping the trial court will recognize there is an important difference between the [local decisions over] land use, and the regulation of the technical and industrial operations of industry that is preempted by state law,” said Goldberg.
About 40 percent of Dryden’s land is leased to the Colorado based company. A statement on the Anschutz company website says the state law is clear.

Although Anschutz does not dispute the role of local governments, including the Town regarding traditional zoning, Anschutz has commenced this litigation to protect its substantial lease holdings in the Town.  Anschutz and The West Firm look forward to having the Supreme Court resolve this dispute to provide Anschutz and the Town with guidance concerning the Town’s role relative to the extensive leases held by Anschutz within the Town.

Across the border in Pennsylvania, local municipalities may find all their zoning authority over gas drilling stripped away on the wave of a new impact fee. Republican House members moved a bill through committee on Wednesday, where voting occurred strictly on party lines. While imposing an impact fee on drillers, House Bill 1950 also contains this language:

“All local rules, reg­u­la­tion, code, agree­ment, res­o­lu­tion, ordi­nance or other local enact­ments that reg­u­late oil and gas oper­a­tion are hereby super­seded and pre­empted…”

Democrats and some local authorities across the state are “not taking too kindly” to the provision.