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Eighty-eight percent is not decisive?

July 19, 2012

While preparing a new comprehensive plan, the Town of Callicoon conducted a survey in the spring of 2010 to gauge the opinion of property owners on a number of subjects. Although hydraulic fracturing was already a controversial topic, the survey asked just a single question about it: Is “gas drilling” “important” to the town? The question was unclear. Did it mean was it important to bring gas drilling to the town, or important to keep it out? It could be interpreted either way. Despite this obvious flaw in the survey, nearly a quarter of the respondents expressed their opinions by writing comments of their own—and 88% of them made it clear that they did not want fracking in their town.

Now 88% is usually considered a decisive majority, but it wasn’t good enough for the town comprehensive plan committee. Because only 93 property owners offered clear opinions, the committee said the survey results were “not enough to establish that a majority of residents are opposed to gas drilling”—and proceeded to draft a pro-fracking comprehensive plan that encourages the creation of industrial zones and housing for transient workers who come into communities to work on gas wells.

Was the town justified in disregarding the opinions expressed in the community survey? Or did the 88% actually represent the town as a whole? My colleague Jill Wiener and I set out to find the answer. We began by using the Freedom of Information Law to obtain copies of every letter, email and petition that was sent to the town. We also looked at all the comments that were made at a recent public hearing on the plan.

After eliminating multiple responses from the same individuals, we ended up with a list of 332 stakeholders—residents, property owners and businesses owners in the town. That’s a fairly large sample for a town that only has 3,057 residents. So what did all these stakeholders have to say about fracking? At the meeting, nine residents spoke in favor of fracking, 42 spoke against it. And every one of the letters emails and petitions sent to the town opposed fracking. In other words, 3% of the stakeholders favor fracking, and 97% oppose it. Can anyone dismiss these results as inconclusive? (Before you say “no,” wait and see what the town officials do with this information.)