How Oxford Village Created its No Frack Zone
On February 5, 2013, the Oxford Village Board voted 4 to 1 to pass an historic “confirmatory amendment” to its zoning law. The measure prohibits industrial activities within the boundaries of the Village.
Everyone in the room knew exactly what that fourth “Yes!” vote meant — namely, a super-majority decision to prohibit fracking by law — a decision that under New York State’s principle of Home Rule cannot be overturned by County or State officials. In that moment the Board transformed our village into the first municipality in Chenango County to create a No Frack zone
The Village and Town of Oxford, New York
Oxford straddles the Chenango River midway between Binghamton and Utica. The mile-square Village boasts beautiful old homes, churches and well-kept parks with a history dating to the American Revolution. The Town of Oxford’s surrounding countryside is a haven for white-tailed deer, pheasants, turkeys and Canada geese, and its streams, lakes and rivers provide some of the best sport fishing anywhere. Postcard-picturesque family farms nestle among pristine green ridge lines and along brooks that actually babble! The seasonal and all-year residents around its lakes take pride in the peace and quiet and the purity of their air and water.
Village residents elect their own government; village and town voters jointly choose the town board.
The Nature of the Oxford Community
In addition to Oxford’s charm and beauty, it’s a community rich with warm and friendly, trusting people — people unaccustomed to having strangers pull the wool over their eyes. Over the past decade some town landowners had signed leases for gas drilling and hoped to become wealthy from royalties of natural gas with little or no harm done. “Landmen” representing giant gas companies Chesapeake Energy and Norse Energy had approached them with leasing contracts for an innovative gas-extraction process called by the unfamiliar term “hydrofracking.” The landmen also predicted lottery-scale financial windfalls from this new drilling technique and offered assurances that the innovation would remain safe and unobtrusive — a gas well hardly more noticeable than the term the industry uses to describe it — a “Christmas tree.”
Imagine that! Millions and millions of dollars from a little old Christmas tree!
Few people in the area realized what many Pennsylvanians know from bitter experience — that many rural communities outside New York State have been radically transformed through heavy industrialization and the introduction of drilling derricks, earsplitting compressor stations, toxic waste lagoons, long rows of loud, enormous trucks and miles of often exposed pipe lines interrupted by noxious compressor stations.
Our Story Begins in July 2012
Our Oxford Visionaries movement was born during a chat between next door neighbors. One a retired teacher, former businessman and lifelong political activist. The other was a construction worker and trustee on the Oxford Village Board. The trustee had learned that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced on June 13 that the state would open five southern counties — including Oxford’s Chenango County — to the controversial gas drilling process called fracking. More specifically, New York State was expected to approve already submitted hydraulic fracturing drilling permits in Chenango County as soon as the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and its revised gas drilling regulations.
We neighbors knew that Governor Cuomo had also stated that individual municipalities could accept or reject fracking under New York’s principle of Home Rule. The previous February, courts had upheld two communities’ powers to pass a moratorium and ban fracking in major test cases — Dryden and Middlefield. One hundred and forty-nine New York municipalities had already done so, fearing water contamination, air pollution, radioactive poisoning, health dangers, traffic congestion, transient crime and other widely documented threats to the quality of life throughout a community.
Our Perfect Storm: Addressing the Triple Threats to Clean Air, Clean Water, and Health
Governor Cuomo’s announcement thrust tiny Oxford into the vortex of the twenty-first century crises of a faltering national economy, corrupt and broken government, and global warming driven by fossil fuels. The village trustee invited the former teacher to attend the next Oxford Village board meeting and ask his representatives a straightforward, fundamental, question – Is our community ready for fracking?
Hardly any rural community can answer yes. Most communities are so unprepared for the consequences of this complex process — virtually unknown to the public only a few years ago — that few residents could explain that the mouthful “unconventional, high volume horizontal hydrofracked gas drilling” refers to a controversial industrial technique that has never been allowed in New York but has been employed in other states, including Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from Oxford.
Even fewer residents would be able to answer tough questions about fracking.
And there are indeed many tough questions — but not many easy answers.
The activist offered to submit a list of twenty questions that he would want answered if he were serving on the board. Village Mayor Terry Stark readily accepted the offer.
Around this time the Oxford community, under the leadership of Mayor Stark and Town Supervisor Lawrence Wilcox, was holding workshops on community planning. A high priority was the need for a long range joint Comprehensive Plan for the town and village, because the last plan had been created in 1970, practically half a century earlier. Faculty and graduate students from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse facilitated the Vision Planning Project.
That name inspired some of those who participated to call themselves The Oxford Visionaries.
Motivated by this civic initiative and spurred by Governor Cuomo’s announcement, a small circle of town and village residents formulated the twenty questions. Eight days after the Village Board meeting the Visionaries submitted the questions to the Oxford Village and Town Boards.
Status of Vulnerable Southern Tier Communities
Both the governor and DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens announced as early as April that New York communities identified as anti-drilling would not be subject to fracking. As many as 400,000 acres in Chenango County were leased to be drilled. A few Southern Tier boards had passed resolutions in support of drilling in their towns, but no local government in Chenango County had passed such a resolution, nor had any passed a ban or temporary moratorium—three of many options clearly within the legal powers and designated responsibilities of New York towns and villages.
Many other villages and towns were grappling with these choices. Fortunately some law firms had offered their services pro bono to any local government eager to move quickly to protect its community’s control over zoning and land use.
When the Oxford Village Board accepted the retired teacher’s offer as a village resident to submit questions that the board might find helpful in reaching a decision on gas drilling in the village, some recognized that village’s decision would impact the town and vice versa. A collegial working relationship would clearly benefit both boards.
Status of the Planning Process
Oxford Village and Town boards were in the early stages of the new, long-range Comprehensive Town and Village plan to build on the zoning regulations in place in the village since 1970. Naturally, Oxford zoning laws had never envisioned the complicated governmental, legal, real property, health, safety, infrastructural, emergency service and environmental impact of industrial-scale gas drilling. Obviously the application or modification of land and road use and zoning laws to deal with hydraulic fracturing would be indispensable to fulfill the Vision Planning Project.
The Oxford Visionaries were fully aware that the DEC would issue general regulations and guidelines. Nevertheless, outside agencies can only try to apply general rules and regulations to the unique conditions of our community and the values of our citizens. We elect our Oxford boards to do that in a timely manner. And the governor and DEC expect that.
We understood that Oxford Village and Town have the urgent and ultimate responsibility to decide how to exercise their powers and responsibilities under the State Constitution to zone or prohibit the various aspects of this industrial process. Given Albany’s expedited time frame, we understood that there would be no “grace period” after the DEC issued its report as early as that summer.
Albany’s rush to open the Southern Tier to this controversial process and to respect the principle of home rule forced the issue upon us.
The following twenty questions were far from a comprehensive overview. They were just a sample of the numerous challenging issues our community and our leadership would be forced to confront within weeks.
Oxford Village and Town Boards
Industrial Gas Drilling
Questions and Recommendations
Irving Wesley Hall
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
1) How are the Oxford Town and Village Boards going to respond to Albany’s delegation of responsibility to pass and enforce land use and zoning regulations for hydraulic fracturing?
2) How are the boards going to respond effectively before the DEC issues its report?
3) Do any board members, their families, or business associates hold gas drilling leases or otherwise stand to benefit from any board action or inaction on this issue?
4) When can the boards compile a complete map of the properties leased to corporations for gas drilling, the owners, corporations, and the permits submitted?
5) What adjacent properties will be affected by Albany’s compulsory integration of the lease holder’s neighbors’ land into his contract and gas drilling business?
6) What natural aquifers, private and village wells, rivers, smaller waterways, and ponds exist on the acreage leased for horizontal drilling or projected for pipelines?
7) What roads, highways and bridges and service stations will be used by the hundreds of heavy trucks that will service each well in this area?
8) What businesses, farms and private homes will be impacted by drilling: increased traffic; noise; air, soil and water pollution; and damage or injuries from accidents?
9) What additional judicial and legal services will be needed for property and personal conflicts and lawsuits among neighbors, leaseholders and corporations?
10) What skills and resources will the town assessor need to determine the tax rate on each well and monitor reporting, given the widespread fraud in the industry?
11) What new personnel, equipment, training and supplies will be required for local fire, emergency medical, traffic and environmental control and police services?
12) What additional personnel, equipment, training and supplies will be required for town and village highway, water, waste management and other departments?
13) What will be the impact on local air, water, and soil quality and how will they be monitored, pollution prevented and violations publicized and remedied?
14) What plans are needed for emergency evacuations of neighborhoods, schools, highways and public facilities in the event of a fire, explosion or chemical leak?
15) If private security forces are employed by drilling companies how will they coordinate with the powers and jurisdictions of local police?
16) How will safety, fire and medical emergency crews gain access to fenced and locked or abandoned facilities or those with disputed or foreign ownership?
17) What additional lawyers, tax enforcement and collection agents will be required for absentee owners or American corporations selling leases to foreign entities?
18) What additional local employees, supplies and equipment will be needed for this expanded range of government services? Property or sales tax increases?
19) What will be the economic impact from the influx of temporary workers, more crime, increased school enrollment and demand for additional community services?
20) What will be the effects on property values from homeowner flight because of the changes caused by major industrialization of a traditionally rural area?
The process of preparing this list of questions to assist the two boards in their deliberations made it clear that Oxford Village and Town —like most of the rest of the state – was not prepared for drilling to begin soon across the street from our home or down the road from our farm, school or business. However, that’s just what would happen once the DEC issued its report and Albany issued the first permit to drill in Oxford!
Hence, the activist recommended that at the late July and early August regular meetings both the village and town boards should declare moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing to give all of us time to digest the forthcoming DEC report, to assess the local reactions and to address the complex issues raised. He suggested that the moratorium begin as soon as approved and extend for at least 24 months after the release of the DEC report.
Furthermore, he urged the boards to appoint a joint industrialization task force to work with the elected boards, their agencies, departments, planning boards and all interested parties in Oxford to help prepare the long range plan already in progress.
He envisioned a task force composed of serious and open-minded representatives from all sectors of the community (including women and high school students), that its work be fully transparent and that all its deliberations and meetings be announced in advance and open to the public. The official Oxford NY website could serve as a vehicle for the task force’s publicity, agendas, minutes, reports, and draft proposals. With the anticipated assistance of additional volunteers it would be possible to expand the information in the report and compile a more comprehensive list of questions to coincide with the boards’ approval of the task force.
Thus the roots of a local movement took hold. Oxonians, as Oxford folks like to be called, began to organize and educate themselves about gas drilling in the farmers market, churches, restaurants, the library and on shaded streets. The Oxford Visionaries were thus born in a typically American grass roots tradition.
Oxford’s Future and Fracking
As we envisioned a Comprehensive Plan and answered our own questions, more and more of us realized that fracking would drastically and irreversibly threaten all of Oxford’s assets, from the quality of our water and air, the condition of our streets and roads, the safety of our residents faced with transient crime, plummeting property values, over-stressed social services, security and enforcement — above all, the health and well-being of our residents, young and old alike.
Within a few weeks Mayor Stark responded to the twenty questions with a well-researched and well-informed document. (Posted on the Oxford Village website)[http://www.oxfordny.com/government/village/pdfs/Mayor-Starks-Response-to-Irving-Halls-20-Questions-RE-Village-Natural-Gas-Drilling.pdf]
Opponents of fracking mailed every addressee in Oxford a copy of the Flowback newspaper, a reliable source of information about the troubling issues associated with hydraulic fracturing. The Visionaries collected 350 letters for Village Mayor Terry Stark recommending a moratorium, and for the Town Board they gathered more than 1000 petition signatures opposed to hydraulic fracturing.
Big Gas Counterattacks
In response to this synergy between popular mobilization and responsive government the big gas companies stepped up public pressure. They began running almost daily expensive, full page, full color ads in the local newspaper supporting the “harvesting of natural gas”. A few local landowners began to grumble and shout at board meetings but eventually realized they comprised a small if vocal minority. (See statistics below.) In contrast, we Oxford Visionaries always treated our opponents with a respect that was not always reciprocated.
Proponents of gas drilling initiated whispering campaigns and personal attacks on the leadership of the Oxford Visionaries. They threatened to boycott local businesses and to sue individual Village board members. The Oxford Visionaries never responded in kind and consistently followed the high road. In this way they won the respect of the community and its leaders alike.
Mayor Stark followed up with a series of educational hearings and “both sides” forums that featured Robert Wedlake, a pro-drilling lawyer, and attorney David Slottje from the Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC) that advised many of the 150 New York State municipalities that have adopted moratoriums. (See CEDC at http://www.cedclaw.org/)
In response well-funded pro-gas bloggers vilified not only the Visionary representatives but also Mayor Terry Stark. (See http://eidmarcellus.org/marcellus-shale/the-natural-gas-wizard-of-oxford/12457/)
Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, the Oxford Village Board held hearings and investigated issues surrounding a proposed a nine-month moratorium on gas drilling within the Village limits. The explicit purpose of a moratorium would be to investigate as thoroughly as possible the many complex, controversial issues surrounding high volume hydrofracking within the boundaries of the Village.
The Village Planning Board Acts
Oxford Village’s courageous and patient quest for truth helped its Planning Board come up with a thoughtful recommendation. They proposed a nine-month moratorium to enable the Village to revise its zoning regulations and preserve the traditional, rural and healthful character beloved by the overwhelming majority of its residents. http://www.oxfordny.com/government/village/pdfs/Village-of-Oxford-Planning-Board-Recommendation-09-24-12.pdf
On October 15, 2012 the Village voted 4-1 to commence the moratorium process (See documents at http://www.oxfordny.com/government/MoritoriumProposal-10-15-2012.pdf and http://www.oxfordny.com/government/moritoriumappendix10-15.pdf. [Note: Moratorium misspelled]
The Town and Village have separate zoning ordinances. During the period from December 11 until January 8, in response to potential legal challenges, the Village Board reviewed its zoning regulations. and in light of its expected adoption of the moratorium process, it began modifying its zoning laws explicitly to ban gas drilling in the Village in a form that would successfully resist a lawsuit.
The strategy envisioned that at the end of the nine-month moratorium period, the Village Board could lift the moratorium and rely on its new zoning laws to keep gas drilling out of the Village or—theoretically—lift the moratorium and rezone the Village to allow industrialization once the state issues permits for gas drilling.
On October 15 the Village Board affirmed its position in favor of the proposal by a 4 to 1 vote super-majority — that is, the County of Chenango would not be able to overturn the vote by administrative action. If enacted, the measure would have become the first moratorium granted in the county.
During the Dec. 11 meeting Mayor Stark permitted two five-minute presentations, one by Irving Wesley Hall, representing The Oxford Visionaries; and an opposing view, presented by Bryant LaTourette, speaking for a coalition of landowners. Mr. LaTourette also signaled an intention to file a lawsuit if the Board approved a moratorium. The draft notice of intent stated that objects of the lawsuit would include not only the Village of Oxford itself but also each individual member of the Village Board.
Then at a Village Board meeting in early January, the mayor noted that legal representation had been secured, stressing two points:
Had the Village instead chosen the moratorium option and been sued or if the Village were sued for passing a clarification amendment, two national organizations had offered to provide pro bono legal representation in its defense.
In addition, the Village’s insurance carrier had assured the board that the company would pay to defend it against any gas company or leaseholder suit as a result of its action. This post-hearing postponement allowed the board to conduct a thorough review of zoning regulations.
The Board voted to postpone its consideration of a moratorium until January. The Board, led by Mayor Terry Stark, voted unanimously to table the vote.
After a review of the regulations, assisted by CEDC pro bono attorney David Slottje, the Village Board voted 4 to 1 to approve a “confirmatory amendment” to clarify the Village’s zoning regulations, explicitly prohibiting any industrial activity that is not currently permitted within the Village boundaries. That amendment was delivered to the Chenango County Planning Board for review. If the County had approved the amendment, the Village Board would then have held a final vote to approve or reject the measure.
The Village Board also tentatively considered an agreement with Norse Energy. But because that company’s CEO had been preoccupied with bankruptcy proceedings, no agreement was feasible.
Despite the super-majority vote of the Village Board, the pro-gas Chenango County Planning Board rejected the proposed amendment. Among the reasons for rejecting the amendment, the County board mentioned that the language of the amendment was too vague, that a change in the zoning law was premature because the State had not completed its review of regulations, that the amendment was not congruent with the 1970 Comprehensive Plan, and that the measure might have an adverse economic impact on the region.
At the next meeting of the Village Board, many observers expected vociferous opposition to the proposed amendment from pro-drilling landowners — especially after the unexpected denial by the Chenango County Planning Board. To everyone’s surprise, however, Mr. LaTourette, the principal representative of the landowners coalition, consented to the “well-crafted” amendment.
By another 4-to-1 the Village Board overruled the Chenango County Planning Board on February 5, 2013. At 7:40 the Board passed the amendment, and Oxford Village officially became a No Frack Zone.
One key lesson for other communities struggling to resolve issues around fracking should be evident from Mayor Stark’s prudent approach to resolving controversial issues surrounding gas drilling — an approach that began from the inception of the process in July 2012.
The thorough review of zoning regulations prepared the Village Board to enact the critically important amendment to clarify its zoning laws.
Other opponents of fracking frequently ask The Oxford Visionaries: “How did tiny Oxford come to make such a big decision?”
The question is especially fascinating to outsiders seeking fertile soil for their own grassroots efforts because we Oxford Visionaries are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Village government or any of its officials. Our classic grassroots efforts have not enjoyed any special “insider” political influence.
Word of Fracking Spread Community-wide
The Visionaries movement initially grew by word of mouth among residents throughout the Village and Town. As curious residents became increasingly well-informed, many began to express deep concern.
The odd, slightly naughty word “fracking” and then its diverse meanings became topics of casual conversation. Residents became expert at explaining technical differences between vertical drilling and “unconventional, innovative, high-volume, horizontal hydrofracking.” Informal debates focused upon how many millions of gallons of fresh water were required to frack a single well twenty times. And there were rumors that farmers could harvest incredible financial bonanzas from gas leases they’d sold to giant Chesapeake and Norse energy companies whose “landmen” — another new term — had visited homes throughout the county.
Many puzzling questions went unanswered: Where would millions of gallons of fresh water — multiplied by thousands of gas wells — come from? What chemicals would millions and millions of gallons of waste water contain? How would gas companies safely dispose all of that waste water? How could local roads sustain the traffic of hundreds of heavy trucks loaded with water? Where would gas workers come from? Where would they live? What about insurance in case of accidents? What have other communities in Pennsylvania and North Dakota experienced, and what can we learn from them?
Who could supply the answers to our questions?
As residents became better informed about the controversies surrounding fracking, conversations sometimes turned to horrifying tales and filmed demonstrations of tap water exploding with methane gas, and photographs of poisoned cattle, wildlife and sickened residents — particularly the elderly and young children. There were also dire warning that State laws and regulations would not protect them. No one would be safe from harm.
But where were the reliable, unbiased sources of information about fracking? What was the truth behind these wildly contradictory claims? Whose word should we trust? The gas companies? Should we take the word of landowners who had sold gas leases? Should we believe the TV ads promoting “natural” gas as the best way to meet “America’s need for clean energy?”
On the other hand, why should we take the word of environmental “extremists” –some of whom had never seen a large corporation that wasn’t a monster? Practically no one had seen the award-winning feature length anti-fracking documentary Gasland, which was filmed near the New York-Pennsylvania border only a short drive away.
Nor did everyone believe that the scientific community had arrived at any consensus about the cause of global warming or that release of methane from gas drilling into the atmosphere would hasten worldwide environmental catastrophe.
Gradually the rumors of potential impacts — positive and negative — upon the community spread like the devastating floods of recent years, resident by resident, neighborhood by neighborhood, forcing longtime friends and even families to take sides. Many felt obliged to choose: either Pro-Fracking or No-Fracking! Yard signs began to pop up like mushrooms after spring rain: No Frack versus Friends of Natural Gas.
The question on many minds — and lips — was: Which side are you on?
Birth of a Movement
At the beginning, volunteers willing to join the Oxford Visionaries started to appear without any serious recruitment, without advertising, alarming news headlines, or literature. Membership in the Visionaries has from the outset been informal, free of rules, fees, elected or appointed leadership, or special requirements of any kind – even an explicit pledge to oppose fracking everywhere.
It’s no wonder that we Oxford Visionaries have so often been asked, “How on earth did you do it?”
Visionaries began to sink their roots into the Town of Oxford’s rural neighborhoods. For instance, a public forum in the open-air pavilion at Gerry Lake prompted Lake residents to organize to persuade the Town Board to follow the Village Board’s lead and consider a moratorium. At the next Town Board meeting dozens of newly recruited activists showed up with matching fluorescent yellow T-shirts: DON’T FRACK OUR LAKE!
A small circle had inspired a genuine movement.
The Visionaries organized a caravan tour of Pennsylvania’s gaslands in nearby Dimock and Montrose. [Note: See Yoko Ono’s short video “Imagine There’s No Fracking” on this Website. That video shows the same area that we Visionaries inspected and that Josh Fox filmed for his feature-length, award-winning documentary “Gasland.”
Respected town leaders participated along with the entire Village Board and members of the Village Planning Board (See You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_K2HErjkR4) and (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSTbXwF02H4&playnext=1&list=PL5F2A29B0183AC594&feature=results_video)
The Town Board Responds to the Village’s Initiative
The Town of Oxford boasts perhaps the best zoning laws in Chenango County. They were last revised in 2007 when terms like hydraulic fracturing and compulsory integration were unknown or not understood. Even when Oxford’s residents first learned that our county would be a target for fracking, hardly anyone could explain what the term meant, much less how to prepare for it.
In its wisdom—and at the urging of the Oxford Visionaries in November –the Town Board took several steps to reexamine its zoning given the possibility that New York State would lift its temporary moratorium and begin issuing gas drilling permits as early as March 2013.
The Town Board instructed the Town Planning Board to recommend changes in the zoning ordinances to deal with hydraulic fracturing. (See the Oxford Visionaries’ November 1, 2012 letter to the the Town Board: http://www.townofoxfordny.com/assets/minutes/Hall-Letter.pdf)
These tentative steps offer an ideal opportunity to re-engage the community in the Vision Planning process, to update the 1970 “Master Plan for the Town and Village of Oxford NY” and to insure that the revised zoning laws protect the health, safety and welfare of all of the citizens of Oxford.
The Visionaries Enter a New Phase
The small summer circle of original moratorium supporters evolved into a professional Oxford Visionaries Steering Committee committed to continue the ambitious work of the Vision Planning Project and to assist Oxford’s elected and appointed leaders to update a decades-old Oxford Comprehensive Plan.
Six Keys to Success
1) Enlightened elected village officials;
2) Cohesive team of community activists;
3) Mutual respect and cooperation between the activists and the officials;
4) Educational initiatives to mobilize community support;
5) Respect for landowners with gas drilling leases — the vocal proponents of gas drilling;
6) Clear goals, serious analysis, professional political strategies and flexible tactics.
By adhering to those six strategic principles, Oxford Village managed to make steady progress over difficult political terrain. The Village Board was able to develop its historic nine-month moratorium and then in a sharp tactical turn to table that admirable proposal in favor of a clarifying amendment to its current zoning law. In keeping with New York State’s principle of Home Rule, the measure prohibits all industrial activities not already permitted within the boundaries of the Village. And finally, in the face of a futile and illogical rejection by the Chenango County Planning Board, the Village passed the amendment into law with a super-majority vote that cannot be overruled.
For more information contact the Visionaries at Info@oxfordvisionaries.org
According to the 2000 census the population of the town was 3,992. 24% of the residents were under 18.
The total number of Village voters is 864
The total number of town voters outside the Village is 1464.
The combined number of Town/Village voters is 2,328.
Number of ban/moratorium petitions signed from Town and Village 1052
Town Board 2009 lelection number of Town and Village voters 269
Town Board 2011 election number of Town and Village voters 210
Number of Town Board members up for re-election in November 2013: three out of five: (Supervisor Lawrence Wilcox, Larry Beckwith, and John Hofmann)
The total number of gas lease holders is approximately 150 including couples, siblings, children and voters registered elsewhere.
Norse Energy (NorNew) 72
Chesapeake Energy 6
Oxford landowners with listed gas drilling leases 68% of property acreage
20% of additional acreage is claimed by Central New York Landowners Coalition to belong to landowners who would like to lease land for gas drilling: total 88%