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Cochecton puts zoning committee on permanent hold

By Erion Carroll
February 22, 2012

The Cochecton Town Board at its meeting on February 8 decided that the continuation of the Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) would be a waste of time. All of the board members expressed disappointment at the committee’s lack of following the direction of the board.

The committee was supposed to come up with recommendations to assist the town in making decisions on the future of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Town of Cochecton. The group of six people, who were purposely selected to hold differing opinions, met several times but could not reach any compromise about how to proceed. While each side in the debate made recommendations about what they thought was the right way to proceed, they made no recommendation as a group.

The committee members did agree that they wanted to see limits as to where and how many wells would be allowed, but that option was not allowed.

Supervisor Gary Maas said that the state is not going to take any action on drilling for at least a year, and that the town planning board will now have time to review the situation and hopefully make suggestions to the board regarding zoning and gas drilling.

ZAC member Allan Rubin was quite vocal that he still believes that the town is choosing to “head into the rainstorm without an umbrella.” He had urged that the town should temporarily ban drilling until they had time to research more options.

Board member Larry Richardson said he still believes that, before the state makes any decision, communities ought to tell the state that they want control of those activities, such as gas drilling, put back in the local communities rather than having the state making the decisions for them.

At the previous town meeting on January 11, Maas asked all of the members present if they thought the committee should be continued.

Paulene Johnson said no. Johnson and committee members Earl Bertsch and Peter Grosser generally support fracking in at least some areas of the town, even if there are some risks.

Johnson said life is full of risks and the profits gained through gas drilling could be used for such things as helping to pay for public transportation in Sullivan County. She said, “The wells are not a terrible eyesore,” and added if “we do things right, this should not affect tourism.”

Rubin said that the way things had been going he didn’t see much point in continuing the committee meetings. Rubin and members Grace Van Hulsteyn and Michael Lebron advocate that fracking should be kept out of the town. Rubin said that more time is needed to determine whether the town should allow it.

My ZAC experience

Although I had a frustrating experience as co-chair of the Cochecton Zoning Advisory Committee, it was not a total failure. I hoped to convince the pro gas drilling members by patiently exposing them to information they may not have been aware of. They chose to reject our facts and rely on assurances from the gas industry. I knew it would be nearly impossible to change their minds so I reassured myself that there was a second purpose for the Committee. We used it as an opportunity to present the Town Board at length with those facts without being limited to the usual five minute presentations during public comment. Now the responsibility for protecting the town rests again with the Board members and they can’t say they haven’t heard anything negative about the dangers of drilling, fracking and heavy industrialization of the town.

The supposed compromise offered by the other committee members was not serious because it amounted to regulation of the gas industry, not allowed under NY law. We proposed a temporary moratorium leading to a temporary zoning ban on heavy industrial land use, which would gain time to ascertain whether drilling could be done safely. I still believe that was a reasonable compromise offer. Now Cochecton may be heading into that toxic storm without an umbrella, or is driving into it in a convertible with the top down, thinking it can stop and put it up after we all get soaked. Even with home rule now possible, once permits are issued they cannot be preempted by zoning and it will be too late. I still hope the Cochecton Town Board will find the courage to meet its responsibility to support the Comprehensive Plan and preserve the rural nature of the town.