As in other towns in Sullivan County, the issues of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been percolating through the local political process in the Town of Bethel for the past couple of years. At a town meeting on August 27, the town board gave its clearest indication to date about the likely path the board will follow.
Supervisor Dan Sturm said he had reviewed the new draft regulations proposed by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He said, “I am not happy with the revised DEC regulations that came out last month. How can the DEC and our elected representatives, including the governor of this state, think that they can allow drilling here [in Bethel], but not on state-owned land, or New York City or City of Syracuse watersheds? The state is clearly playing Russian roulette with the residents of Bethel, and we cannot be anybody’s guinea pigs.”
That prompted a sustained round of applause. Sturm then explained the actions the board would take regarding a possible zoning change to the town code. He said the board would ask NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for clarification about the roles of municipalities regarding “zoning and natural gas.”
Strum also said the town’s zoning code had been reviewed without charge by the Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC), and the two lawyers that operate the organization, Helen and David Slottje, who are serving as consultants to other towns in Sullivan County. Sturm said the Slottjes had prepared a zoning amendment for the board to consider, as they have done for Lumberland, Highland and Tusten.
The Slottjes have been invited to a workshop on an as-yet unspecified date in September with the town board, the planning board, the zoning board of appeals and the public.
The other board members indicated that they generally agreed with the direction Sturm outlined, although it is not clear if they will attempt to limit zoning to certain parts of the town or move to ban industrial uses, such as gas drilling, altogether in the town, as is the case with Lumberland.
There were numerous statements of support from full-time and part-time residents, some of whom were able to attend the meeting because it was held on a Saturday morning.
But there were also several statements on the other side of the issue.
Noel van Swol, president of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association, said there are owners of about 20,000 acres of land in the town that “want and need” gas drilling. He said that board members should “compromise.” He said areas such as Smallwood, The Chapin Estate and White Lake could be protected, but he said, “Do not categorically ban gas drilling. You are going to harm a large number of permanent residents in these communities of yours … who are being driven out as far as work is concerned.”
The argument about whether drilling can be done safely continued, with drilling supporters saying it can be done safely, and opponents saying so far that has not been proven.