Last week, the Sullivan County Planning Board rejected proposed changes to the Town of Callicoon’s comprehensive plan that would have added language related to fracking and gas drilling. The reason? The Board found that the Town had ignored the voices of its own residents in approving a plan indicating drilling would be appropriate in the rural town where the vast majority of residents oppose it.
For those unacquainted, a comprehensive plan is generally a document that outlines the goals and aspirations for a town’s development. Information in the comprehensive plan is important because it often serves as the basis for zoning decisions in the town, and ultimately, what types of activities are or are not permitted.
In essence, a comprehensive plan should be a democratic document, but in Callicoon, it was clear that the town leadership wasn’t interested in what the majority of its residents had to say. According to a press release by the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the Community Environmental Defense Council, surveys conducted between 2010 and 2012 showed that between 66% and 88% of the residents surveyed indicated that they opposed fracking.
In conducting their own community survey for the comprehensive plan, the Town carefully avoided the simple question of whether residents favored or opposed gas drilling. Instead, the survey confusingly asked residents to “rank the importance” of there being gas drilling in the town. Accordingly, residents who strongly opposed fracking didn't know whether to rank the issue "very important" or "not important."
Recognizing this confusion, the previous survey results, and the “many letters of concern” from town residents, the county planning board rejected all fracking-related language in the draft comprehensive plan. As an alternative, the Board suggested that the town create a separate plan relating to fracking and heavy industry in the town that actually includes “residents’ opinions about extractive and heavy industries.”
After all, as the county planning board stated, “[s]ince the purpose of a comprehensive plan is to set forth the desires of a community’s residents for growth and preservation so they may guide policy and action, it is important to obtain accurate information of those desires.”
From here the edited plan will be sent back to the Town, which can now only override the county board’s decision by a supermajority vote. Regardless of the outcome of this vote, however, this victory is part of a larger movement where the voice of local community members on fracking is making itself heard. Even in other states where fracking is already occurring, towns are flexing their democratic muscle by denying zoning permits where drillers refuse to comply with local laws.
To help the cause, NRDC’s Community Fracking Defense Project recently did its part to ensure that community members who want to speak out against fracking are not deprived of their First Amendment rights, and we will continue to fight for the democratic rights of local communities where they are threatened.