In late June, local communities triumphed over the fracking industry in a precedent-setting case decided by the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
In a test case pitting community rights against the oil and gas industry, the court ruled that the towns of Dryden and Middlefield can use local zoning laws to ban heavy industry, including oil and gas operations, within municipal borders.
“Heavy industry has never been allowed in our small farming town and three years ago, we decided that fracking was no exception," said Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumner. “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”
Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with the public interest law organization, Earthjustice, represented the Town of Dryden in the case. “This decision by the Court of Appeals has settled the matter once and for all across New York State and has sent a firm message to the oil and gas industry,” said Goldberg.
“For too long the oil and gas industry has intimidated and abused people, expecting to get away with it. That behavior is finally coming back to haunt them, as communities across the country stand up and say ‘no more.’ Earthjustice is proud to have stood with, and fought on behalf of, one such community.”
The decision gives legal backing to the more than 170 New York municipalities that have passed measures to protect residents from the impacts of the controversial oil and gas development technique. The news also gives a green light to dozens of other New York towns that have been waiting for the decision to pass their own local ban.
“Town by town, New Yorkers have taken a stand against fracking. Today’s victory confirms that each of these towns is on firm legal ground,” said Helen Slottje, a Sierran and an Ithaca-based attorney whose legal research inspired New York’s local fracking ban groundswell. and “The anti-fracking measures passed by Dryden, Middlefield and dozens of other New York municipalities are fully enforceable,” said Slottje, who was honored with the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize.
The decision comes as a growing number of local communities in Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and California are opting to exert community control to guard against the environmental and public health threats of a deregulated, fracking-enabled oil and gas industry rush.
“I’m proud of my town and I’m proud of the people in Fort Collins, Colorado, Denton, Texas, Santa Cruz, California and all the others who are standing up to the oil and gas industry,” said Dryden resident Deborah Cipolla-Dennis.
Dryden’s story began in 2009, after residents pressured by oil and gas company representatives to lease their land for gas development learned more about fracking, the technique companies planned to use to extract the gas. Residents organized and educated for more than two years under the banner of the Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition (DRAC), ultimately convincing the town board to amend its zoning ordinance in August 2011 to clarify that oil and gas development activities, including fracking, were prohibited.
Just six weeks after the town board passed the measure in a unanimous bipartisan vote, Anschutz Exploration Corporation (a privately held company owned by a Forbes-ranked billionaire) sued the town. Dryden argued that their right to make local land use decisions, enshrined in the home rule provision of the New York State Constitution, applies to oil and gas development. In February 2012, a state trial court judge agreed. In May 2013, a panel of judges in a mid-level, appeals court unanimously sided yet again with the town. The decision by New York’s highest court is the final ruling in the matter.
The case in Dryden has taken on special significance. Through the course of its legal battle, more than 20,000 people from across the country and globe sent messages to Sumner and her colleagues on the town board, expressing support for the town in its legal fight, and a video depicting the town’s fight has garnered more than 120,000 views.