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May 9, 2013

Middlefield drilling ban upheld

The Otsego County town of Middlefield and the Tompkins County town of Dryden — along with the principle of home rule — scored major victories, with the state Appellate Division issuing twin rulings that uphold the trail-blazing bans on natural gas drilling.

The towns had also prevailed in the first round of the case, with state Supreme Court judges backing their right to enact home-rule legislation against drilling.

The cases could end up before New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

On the losing side of the mid-level appeals court decisions are the natural gas industry and Jennifer Huntington, operator of Cooperstown Holstein Corp., who said the town of Middlefield’s zoning change in June 2011 put a stop to her plans to have a conventional gas well at her property.

In the Dryden decision, which was cited in the Middlefield case, the court wrote: “We hold that (current law) does not preempt, either expressly or impliedly, a municipality’s power to enact a local zoning ordinance banning all activities related to the exploration for, and the production or storage of, natural gas and petroleum within its borders.”

Huntington said she decided to file the lawsuit against Middlefield in order to get legal clarity over whether the town had the right to prevent local landowners from allowing gas wells to be put into operation on their parcels.

“This is how the democratic process works in the United States,” she said. “If you have a question or a concern with a rule or law, this is how you go about it. There were regulations already on the books. There was a disagreement in the interpretation of them. It was a difference of opinion.”

Huntington’s lawyer, Scott Kurkoski said he took issue with the decision. “The Appellate Division interpreted the oil and gas law by relying on a mining case decided by the Court of Appeals. The laws and the policy behind each law are vastly different,” he said. “The mining laws specifically allow zoning but the oil and gas law does not. Most importantly, New York will never have an effective energy policy if our courts equate the state’s interests in promoting the production of sand and gravel with the production of energy.”

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