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Silent majority in Town of Callicoon? In rare move, Sullivan County denies approval of town plan

By Fritz Mayer
February 11, 2013

President Richard Nixon famously appealed to the “silent majority” in 1969 to support his efforts in waging the war in Vietnam, while the supposedly vocal minority took to the streets in opposition to the war.

The silent majority was invoked at a public hearing in Jeffersonville on February 6, as residents sounded off about the proposed comprehensive plan, which, in the eyes of critics, invites gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing into the town.

Resident John Ebert said, “I wholeheartedly endorse this plan as written, not only for myself but for the silent majority of citizens in this township. We also have a minority group with a lot of mouth, money and misinformation to slow progressive progress in this township. Please listen to the silent majority and approve this as written.”

On the other side of the issue was resident Michael Vreeland, who said, “There is no silent majority in the town that is pro-fracking. I’ve heard that argument from several pro-fracking people. That’s a false argument. The board has heard the passionate voices of the residents in surveys letters and at meetings, the majority of those voices are against fracking, or at least in favor of restricting it.”

Whatever the truth about the silent majority, the speaking majority at this gathering once again came down on the side of keeping gas drilling out of the town. About eight residents spoke in favor of the proposed comprehensive plan, while about 25 spoke against it, which is consistent with the ratios of speakers at previous meetings on the topic.

In reference to polls and surveys that have indicated a majority of residents oppose fracking, Rodney Gaebel, a former town supervisor and former county legislator, said the only poll that really matters is the one that happens at election time in November.

The current legislator, Cindy Geiger, held up a three-inch stack of papers that she said were emails and letters of complaints about the proposed comprehensive plan, which were more numerous than complaints generated by any other topic.

In a sign that awareness about fracking, four years after the topic of gas drilling first surfaced in the region, is still spreading is that about eight residents who spoke in opposition to fracking had not spoken publicly about it in the past. On the pro-fracking side, according to those who have been closely following the issue in the town, there was one resident who has not spoken publicly about it in the past.

Sullivan County declines approval of Town of Callicoon Draft Comprehensive Plan citing pro-fracking language: Press release from Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy

MONTICELLO, NY — In what may be the first action of its kind in New York State, Sullivan County returned a draft Comprehensive Plan to the Town of Callicoon suggesting substantive changes because the draft contained pro-fracking language at odds with the expressed views of the residents.

In a letter, dated February 4, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, Assistant Commissioner Jill Weyer of the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Environmental Management advised the town that the county "has received many letters of concern from residents of the town regarding those portions of the Comprehensive Plan Update that recommend actions that would seem favorable to gas drilling."

The County went on to note that "the purpose of a comprehensive plan is to set forth the desires of the community's residents" and recommended that references to gas drilling "be modified to defer to an Extractive and Heavy Industry Plan" to be developed "after obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of the town's residents' opinions about extractive and heavy industries."

District 5 County Legislator Cindy Kurpil Gieger, whose district includes the town, said the county's action was justified. "In numerous letters and phone calls to my office, residents have made it clear that they treasure the rural character of the town and want to see it preserved for future generations. They have also made it crystal clear that they do not want their health and property values threatened by hydraulic fracturing. Hopefully the town will now accept the advice of the County and revise the Plan so that it better represents the views of the residents."

In 2010 when the town conducted a community survey to guide the development of the Plan, 88% of the respondents who offered an opinion on "gas drilling" indicated that they opposed it. In 2012, 1032 voters and property owners responded to a postcard survey funded by members of the community. Six hundred and sixty-nine (669) stakeholders indicated that they opposed hydraulic fracturing, while only 328 supported it.

Residents who have been battling the town's pro-fracking plan for almost two years say they have compiled a list of all the stakeholders who have gone on the record to let the Town know their views on fracking. Four hundred and seventy-four say they oppose it; only ten say they support it.

Attorneys Helen and David Slottje of the Ithaca-based Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc. represent Callicoon residents who oppose the pro-fracking plan. In an eleven page letter sent to the Sullivan County Division of Planning on January 24, 2013, they cited numerous procedural errors in the way the plan was promulgated.

Helen Slottje noted that the town may ignore the county's advice and adopt the plan in its present form, but warns that would be a mistake. "The town has already done a disservice to the residents of Callicoon by proposing a plan that flies in the face of their clearly expressed wishes, and by seeking to promote a dangerous industrial activity that will put both the residents and their property at risk.

If the board adopts the draft plan in its present form they will do a further disservice to the taxpayers by exposing the town to costly litigation in defense of a plan that is, at the end of the day, is indefensible."