During a heated discussion at the Delaware Town Board meeting last week, it was said that New York State embraces a representative model of government. This is true. But that does not mean that the proper attitude of elected officials is: “We won, we call the shots.” Though part of what it means to represent is to fulfill a mandate by enacting the policies you campaigned on, more important is the idea that the representative is a trustee, looking out for the welfare of all constituents.
At the center of the debate was another political idea—property rights. A gas-mining resolution passed by the board in June basically says that landowners can exploit their mineral rights in any way they see fit. Some seemed to think that this is just what it means to have property rights. But that’s clearly not so. My property rights are not violated by the Delaware zoning law that prohibits me from putting a swimming pool in my front yard. Delaware has a comprehensive plan, last updated in 2010. The first stated objective is to “preserve and respect the rights to use of private property by limiting land use regulations to those essential to the health, safety and welfare of the community and for addressing land use conflicts.” The June resolution is not consistent with this objective. The comprehensive plan has it right: to have property rights does not mean that you can do what you want with your land, without regard to the effects on other people.
So there are important decisions for a representative government to make here. How well did our town board do in representing us? Questions can be raised about the strength of its mandate. But more important, the board has completely failed to fulfill the duties of a trustee. If gas mining comes to our town, it will change it dramatically and permanently—accountability at the next election is not an adequate safeguard in this case. The evident purpose of passing the June resolution was to send a signal to Governor Cuomo that gas mining is welcome in Delaware. That the board took this step with no public notice and no consideration of the impact of gas mining on the community as a whole is nothing short of scandalous.
The board should rescind its June resolution and institute a process that will allow the full range of issues that are relevant to the health, safety and welfare of the community to be studied. State and federal agencies continue to investigate the obvious environmental concerns. What this town urgently needs is a serious study of the economic impact of gas mining on our community.
It is often said that mining will bring jobs and prosperity to the area. But it is far from clear that this is true. It seems more likely that a very small number of people would benefit from gas mining; many others would be adversely affected through increased taxes and reduced property values, and very few long-terms jobs for local people would be created. Momentous decisions concerning the future of our town should not be based on hunches and wishful thinking.
Two members of the town board have expressed reservations about the process leading up to the June resolution. And the town supervisor, in indicating his support for a commission to look into gas mining, acknowledged a perception in the community of a breakdown in good governance. To restore representative government in the Town of Delaware, the first step must be to toss out that shameful resolution.
[Liam Murphy is a resident of Kenoza Lake, NY in the Town of Delaware. He is a professor of law and philosophy at New York University.]