By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE By a nearly 6-1 margin, more speakers at Thursday’s public hearing in White Lake supported the Town of Bethel’s proposed ban on gas drilling than opposed it.
That’s in addition to 85 written comments the town has received since January (81 of them in favor of the ban), plus a petition with more than 500 local signatures in support of the proposal.
Couple that with the town board’s own comments from meetings past and present, and it seems likely Bethel will join Tusten (and possibly Highland and Lumberland) in prohibiting drilling via a zoning amendment.
No decision was made by the town board after Thursday’s hearing, with Supervisor Dan Sturm saying the comments will now be reviewed by the board and a zoning committee.
He added yesterday, however, that he expects to take action on the proposal in April.
Planning bd opts not to recommend ban
Interestingly, two nights before, the Bethel Planning Board voted 4-3 against recommending the adoption of such a ban.
According to Sturm, the planning board did not discuss the matter in public, nor did members give reasons for their votes.
Voting against the ban’s adoption were planning board members Bill Brey, Susan Brown Otto, Willie Hughson and Mike Cassaro; voting for the ban’s adoption were Dave Biren, Steve Simpson and Chairman Dan Gettel.
Sturm reiterated, however, that while the town board sought the planning board’s input, their vote only represented a recommendation.
He also pointed out that the Sullivan County Division of Planning deemed the proposed ban will have more positive than negative impacts, though the county did admit that the ban’s ultimate impacts “are as yet unknown.”
What supporters said
On Thursday, the public weighed in via a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, with nearly three dozen speakers agreeing with the proposed ban.
Several of them were not town residents, but the majority were, ranging from the unemployed to second homeowners to medical practitioners, even County Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson, who lives in White Lake.
Their concerns about drilling’s feared impacts were as wide-ranging, too, from a potential for environmental damage to the loss of tourism to a drop in real estate values to health impacts.
“It is eminently clear hydrofracking is not ready for prime time,” asserted White Lake resident Jennifer Teitelbaum, reading from a letter written by her husband, Crystal Run Healthcare CEO Hal Teitelbaum.
“Fracking should not be allowed in anyone’s backyard,” added Bethel farmer Jennifer Young, who presented the petition with 506 signatures.
“We came up here because we thought Bethel was an absolute gem,” White Lake resident Judith Gold explained. “... We have a moral responsibility to future generations to keep this little gem the way it is.”
“We don’t need fracking to grow our economy,” remarked Kenoza Lake resident Kate Kennedy. “We need more farms.”
“We are the ones that will stop this [fracking],” Smallwood’s Laura Berger predicted. “... We are the people with the power to make change.”
“The land is what it’s all about,” said former oil company purchasing agent Bill Burns, whose family has lived in the area for two centuries.
He fears “devastation” if drilling were to come, based on his prior experiences with the industry. He indicated that outweighs the potentially large economic benefits.
“Me as a taxpayer? I’m broke,” Burns said, waving a dollar bill in the air. “But I’ll be damned if I sell my soul for a dollar!”
Opposition urges delay
About half a dozen speakers did not push for the ban’s adoption. But rather than urging an outright dropping of the proposal, they advocated for a delay.
“I’m not asking you to pass this or not pass this,” said longtime Bethel farmer Harold Russell. “I’m asking you to hold off until we hear from the state.”
Russell and others worried that the state or the courts will deem town-level bans illegal or otherwise unenforceable, possibly tying the town up in expensive legal wranglings for years.
“Let’s not spend the next several years back in court again,” urged local resident Cornelius Alexy, referring to the town’s various legal battles of late. He recommended waiting for the state’s drilling regulations to be finalized.
“If we’re not happy with what they do,” Alexy said, “let’s do something different.”
There was also a hint that some landowners may sue Bethel if it enacts such a ban, arguing that their mineral and land use rights have been usurped.
“What gives the town the right to take that away from me?” Russell asked.
Money still a necessity
One local, organic dairy farmer Bob Franklin, didn’t specifically advocate for or against the drilling ban.
The proposed ban applies to a variety of industrial land uses, not just drilling. It exempts agricultural uses, however (which is why it passed muster recently with the county’s Ag and Farmland Protection Board).
Franklin indicated that siting a well on his acreage could endanger his organic certification, but he also told the board and crowd that if people want to preserve agriculture as a viable local industry, they must actively support it.
“There will not be agriculture if there is no money to be made in agriculture,” he admonished. “... Put your money where your mouth is.”
And that ended up being the one comment which generated applause from the entire audience.