Otsego County ruling joins Tompkins County act against hydrofracking

Section: Main,  Page: A3

Date: Saturday, February 25, 2012

ALBANY -- Opponents of natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, welcomed the second court ruling in less than a week that gave local governments the legal right to ban hydrofracking within their borders.

On Friday, a state Supreme Court justice in Otsego County declared that the town of Middlefield, located about five miles east of Cooperstown, was legally able to ban hydrofracking through its zoning law in June 2011.

The town was sued by a property owner who had signed drilling agreements with a gas company, and who argued that the town ban would block his ability to use his property, and that the state -- not town government -- holds the power to control hydrofracking statewide.

Friday's ruling by Acting Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. echoed one issued three days earlier in Tompkins County by another state judge, Justice Phillip Rumsey, who also found that state mining laws do not prevent local governments from enacting fracking bans under zoning laws.

A coalition of environmental groups said the rulings show local governments -- not the state -- will ultimately decide whether hydrofracking comes to a particular area. More than 50 communities have enacted local gas-drilling bans as the state Department of Environmental Conservation continues studying a proposed state roadmap that could allow hydrofracking to begin in the state.

"Today's ruling in Middlefield proves again that ordinary citizens, and the local governments who listen to them, have power to determine the character of their communities for themselves," according to a statement by Catskill Mountainkeeper and other groups.

Albany lawyer Thomas West, who represents Cooperstown Holstein Corp., which had leased 400 acres to a gas driller and later sued the town to overturn the hydrofracking ban, said he remained confident that higher courts will overturn the Dryden and Middlefield rulings on appeal.

"These decisions could be the kiss of death for the drilling industry coming into the state," said West. "No company will invest in leases if they can just be abrogated by a town board vote."

West also represents Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp., which sued the town of Dryden for its ban. The company has spent more than $5 million toward leasing and developing about 22,000 acres in the town.

The issue is likely to be decided in the state Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

B1 Albany ban vote nears.