The Town of Middlefield in nearby Otsego County has the right to prohibit natural gas drilling within its limits, according to a recent New York state court ruling.
Otsego County Acting Supreme Court judge Donald F. Cerio Jr. ruled the Town of Middlefield, located almost 115 miles northeast of Ithaca, can ban hydraulic fracturing within its jurisdiction. The Feb. 24 ruling came after Cerio decided local officials have the right to regulate drilling methods and manners within the town.
The Middlefield ruling closely followed a Feb. 21 court decision in the Town of Dryden to permit local authorities to decide whether to allow fracking within their town borders. According to the Dryden ruling, the judge has determined New York state law should not impede a town from changing its zoning laws.
Cerio denied the claim made by Jennifer Huntington, president of the Cooperstown Holstein Corporation, a local dairy farm. Huntington argued the town does not have the power to regulate natural gas more than how it affects road use and taxation.
Huntington is a dairy farmer who leased her 377 acres worth of mineral rights to gas drilling companies. She and her company filed against the Town of Middlefield on Oct. 28. In June, town officials had adopted legislation to prohibit constituents from leasing their land to gas drilling companies.
Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for the town, said she believes the Dryden and Middlefield cases will set a precedent to empower town law but not to prevent fracking throughout the state of New York.
“What it very well may do is give communities who were on the fence the courage to go ahead and do what they need to do to help protect themselves,” Goldberg said.
Thomas S. West, an attorney for Cooperstown Holstein Corp., said proponents of the court’s decision failed to consider the repercussions the leasing ban will have on landowners who depend on the gas companies financially.
“This is really a stake in the heart of landowners in New York who were hoping to get some value for their mineral rights and avoid foreclosure or bankruptcy,” West said.
Though Goldberg admits landowners should not expect money through leasing of their property, she said they should consider the potential negative long-term effects of fracking.
“Anyone would hope that they are taking into account the needs of their own community members and not just their own pocketbook,” Goldberg said.
West said the company plans to appeal the ruling. If the appeal is approved and the Middlefield ruling reversed, landowners will be able to continue leasing their mineral rights to gas companies for drilling.
Cheryl Roberts, another attorney for the Town of Middlefield, said she is confident the appeal won’t be passed at the appellate court level.
“I suspect there will be many communities in New York that will not allow fracking in their communities,” Roberts said. “Gas companies will obviously not be able to exploit the resources there and will be limited in their ability for gas.”
Goldberg said that the farmers who elected to lease their land to fracking companies understood the risk prior to allowing those companies to purchase their mineral rights. But, in the long run, she said, the environment of the towns will be better off.
“We think it was a very thorough, well received opinion, and we’re hopeful that it will hold up on appeal,” Goldberg said.