When two upstate New York towns won recent court victories about banning hydracking, they also won early battles about what’s called “home rule.”
And the court rulings could have larger implications about controversies that pit one level of government against the other, say some town officials.
“Home rule and land use authority is about much more than gas drilling,” said Mary Ann Sumner, town supervisor for Dryden. It is 40 miles southwest of Syracuse in the Finger Lakes. And it is one of the winners in the latest court battle about hydrofracking. Sumner added, “We’re not surprised that the court upheld our authority to regulate land use.”
Hydraulic fracturing — known as “hydrofracking” — uses a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals to blast through rock underground. In 2010, the New York State Assembly put a moratorium on the controversial practice, until more environmental studies could be completed.
Opponents argue the hydrofracking fluids contain harsh chemicals that will pollute the environment near drilling areas. Supporters say environmental affects would be minimal and that gas drilling would bring substantial economic activity to the region.
Home rule is the practice of local governments setting laws and regulations for land use — separate from the state. Home rule laws traditionally deal with health and safety concerns within a specific municipality. New York has one of the nation’s strongest home-rule protections in the state’s constitution.
In the recent court battles, the towns of Middlefield in Otsego County and Dryden in Tompkins County had passed local land use laws banning hydrofracking and all gas drilling activities. That pitted them against the state, which since 1981 has claimed the authority to regulate mineral mining.
In the case of Dryden, the town passed a zoning law in August 2011 that banned heavy industrial land use — including hydrofracking. Drilling company Anschutz Exploration sued the town, citing a 1981 state law exempting gas drilling activities from local regulation. The company had invested approximately $5.1 million and obtained gas leases for over 22,000 acres in Dryden.
In the Dryden court case, state Supreme Court Justice Phillip R. Rumsey ruled on Feb. 23 that Dryden can enforce its zoning laws under home rule, even if those zoning laws ban natural-gas drilling. The judge wrote in his ruling, “The Town may regulate the use of land within its borders — even to the extent of banning operations related to production of oil or gas.”
In Middlefield, the town passed a similar zoning law in June 2011 prohibiting heavy industrial land use — including gas drilling. A landowner who leased 377 acres of land to a gas company sued the town, arguing that only the state can regulate natural-gas drilling.
In a separate ruling on Feb. 24, state Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. sided with Middlefield, saying it’s the state’s role to regulate how gas companies drill and local governments’ role to regulate the location of that drilling.
Both decisions can now go to the state Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.
The rulings have implications for several Onondaga County towns that have their own prohibitions against hydrofracking. Some have banned the practice. And others have simply declared a “moratorium” for now.
In Camillus, for example, town Supervisor Mary Ann Coogan supports her town’s law because it goes “further than a moratorium.” Camillus does allow drilling without hydrofracking, she said.
Camillus’ fracking ban has not yet been challenged in court. Coogan applauded the court rulings’ for supporting home rule. Home rule, she said, is vital to local governments.
The ultimate standoff between local and state governments is still to come. Now, the state has its own moratorium on hydrofracking. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is still developing the state’s regulations on hydrofracking. If the state allows hydrofracking, that sets up more conflicts with the local governments that have banned or limited it.
(Jared Kraham is a junior with dual majors in political science and broadcast journalism.)