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December 08, 2016
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Bethel public hearing on drilling ban; one more time, with passion

Four years into it, the voices raised in the public debate about gas drilling and fracking can bring just as much passion to their arguments as they did at the outset. Four years into it, new voices continue to join the debate on both sides of the issue.

The public debate about gas drilling played out once again at the Town of Bethel public hearing on March 15, regarding the adoption of a zoning amendment that would ban drilling and other high impact uses in the town. Of the approximately 40 people who spoke, six were opposed to the ban.

The arguments were mostly familiar: those opposed to the ban said the town needs the jobs and revenue that would come with drilling; those opposed expressed concern over the impacts on health, the environment, water, air, serenity and property values.

A few speakers, however, brought new or unexpected information. Bethel resident Maura Stone said she was an executive “for the highest-rated utility in the nation,” a company that was famously investigated and eventually brought to justice by environmental legal icon Erin Brockovich. In Stone’s former job, she said, “I made sure the energy company was not responsible for anything in every transaction they did.” She warned that doing business with the drilling companies could be financially risky. She said, “Beware of dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.”

A couple of people, including resident Laura Berger, painted the ongoing debate as an epic struggle between regular folks on one side and large corporations and big government who have no concern for the welfare of the community or anything other than the bottom line on the other. Berger said, “We are the ones that will stop this: not the government, not the industry. The people sitting in this room, who have the intelligence and the care and the love of this land and the knowledge of what is going on here—we, the grass roots, will stop this.” She said the entire nation is waiting to see what Bethel and other New York towns will do.

On the other side of the issue, a couple of the people who spoke against the ban warned that the proposed amendment was tantamount to a “taking” and that passing the amendment risked lawsuits from drilling companies that the town could not afford.

Countering that, Karen London, an attorney who was appointed to the committee that reviewed the zoning amendment, gave a concise and convincing argument about why a party that brings a “takings” lawsuit would likely not prevail. She said, “As early as 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out the principal that all property in this country is held under the implied obligation that the owner’s use of it shall not be injurious to the community. In 1926, in a landmark case that I studied in law school, and which is still being cited today, the Supreme Court held that zoning that resulted in the devaluation of the plaintiff’s property did not constitute a taking if such zoning is designed to protect the public health, safety and welfare.”

Regarding the revenues drilling might bring to the town, former Bethel supervisor and dairy farmer Harold Russell said a single well producing $5.5 million of gas annually, which is average for the wells being drilled in Pennsylvania, would mean “county services would get $113,500, the town general fund would get $21,500, the highway department would get $24,350, fire protection would get $13,900 and the school taxes would be $401,850.” He, like others who opposed the ban, asked the board to put off a decision at least until the state releases the final rules on drilling.

Supervisor Dan Sturm said the board would consider all of the spoken and written comments that were submitted before scheduling a vote on the matter. If the vote comes down to a simple consideration of the weight of public sentiment expressed at the various meetings on the issue, the choice for lawmakers will not be a difficult one.