It’s the law: Woodstock enacts ban on hydrofracking

Cathy Magarelli (photo by Dion Ogust)

The Town Board on July 17 delivered the first blow of a proposed two-punch combination aimed at banning hydrofracking in Woodstock, unanimously adopting a zoning amendment that prohibits the controversial natural-gas extraction method and related activities within the town’s borders.

The zoning amendment — an outgrowth of a proposal crafted last year by the Woodstock Environmental Commission — takes the form of a local law. The measure is expected to take effect in approximately 30 days, following its routine submission to New York’s secretary of state. In an accompanying message to Governor Cuomo, the Town Board warned that hydrofracking, where permitted, would leave communities “not only financially prostrate, but also environmentally compromised.”

The council’s vote followed a public hearing in which opponents of hydrofracking urged passage of the measure as a means of protecting the town against environmental risks including the contamination of groundwater. None of the meeting’s 25 or so attendees spoke in favor of fracking, which proponents tout as a safe method of tapping a renewable source of “clean” energy and an economic boon for property owners who sign lucrative leases with gas companies.

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The board temporarily deferred action on another proposed statute, introduced by councilman Jay Wenk, which would fortify the town’s antifracking stance by declaring the practice a violation of residents’ civil rights and subjecting offenders to criminal penalties. The so-called Community Bill of Rights is undergoing revision; a public hearing and an ensuing vote by the board may take place in August.

Hydraulic fracturing, a method of horizontal drilling, entails the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals in order to extract natural gas from underground shale formations. A protracted review of the method by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is nearly complete.

The DEC is expected to recommend that hydrofracking be permitted in selected counties in the western part of the state, overlying the deepest parts of the Marcellus Shale formation, but only with the approval of affected towns. Fracking would not be permitted in areas including aquifers, designated historic districts, and the Catskill Park. Under those conditions Woodstock, which lies within both the New York City watershed and the Catskill Park, would appear to face no imminent threat, but the town is taking no chances.

A starting point

By way of background, Woodstock supervisor Jeremy Wilber noted that the new zoning amendment closely resembles anitfracking measures that were adopted by the towns of Dryden, in the Ithaca area, and Middlefield, near Cooperstown, that have thus far withstood legal challenges. Wilber acknowledged that the local law may eventually require fine-tuning. “In this instance I think that the perfect is the enemy of the good,” he said. “This is a start. We can always make it better.”

The amendment classifies the exploration for and the extraction of natural gas and/or petroleum, along with a host of associated activities, as prohibited uses under the zoning law. The measure includes a provision that deems the takeoff and landing of aircraft in Woodstock a prohibited use. The aircraft prohibition, which the Town Board can suspend as it sees fit, reflects a structural adjustment of the zoning code following a problem that arose years ago, when a resident’s private helicopter proved a nuisance to neighbors.

Speaking before the board’s vote, Linda Leeds, an environmental activist and a nine-year Woodstock resident, expressed support for both the measure on the table and the pending Community Bill of Rights. “Yes, conservation and a commitment to renewable energy sources — whether individually for those who can afford it, or as a common good by our municipal government — are essential steps in slowing further environmental degradation,” she said.

Leeds continued: “These two bills are another piece. They are important because we claim our right to legal standing; we’re saying no, we don’t want it and we don’t accept our subordinate position to our corporate-influenced state lawmakers. By passing these bills, we are strengthening our legislators’ spines, and if they won’t stand up for us, let’s find others who will. This is not nimby-ism, not if we use these laws as a springboard to further action.”

Other residents also condemned hydrofracking. Felicia Kacsik exhorted the board to put “teeth” into the measure that would criminalize the practice by punishing offenders with steep fines and jail sentences. Randi Steele warned that fracking elsewhere in the state might produce windborne pollutants that could adversely affect Woodstock’s environment. “The town should enact every law and prohibition possible to protect itself,” she said.

Raye Langford endorsed the town’s prospective two-pronged ban on fracking. “As I watch my property value dwindle to almost nothing, I feel like a character in Paradise Lost,” she said. “Hydrofracking proponents have deep pockets, so criminal penalties are needed. I’m here because I’m terrified. The town needs to do this as soon as possible.” Langford praised the Town Board “for understanding that the almighty dollar is not the bottom line.”

Before casting their votes, board members expressed satisfaction with the action they were poised to take. “We are doing what the courts have endorsed,” said councilman Ken Panza, alluding to the Dryden and Middlefield laws. Councilman Bill McKenna concurred. “I support this and the other fracking measure,” said Wenk. “I am very concerned about the effect of fracking on water,” said councilwoman Cathy Magarelli. “I really want to do this tonight.”

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