A virtually unprecedented crowd of more than 75 people jostled into the tiny, sweltering Town of Delaware Town Hall on Wednesday night in the expectation of hearing some talk about a resolution passed, apparently on the spur of the moment, during the public comment period of the last regular town meeting. The resolution supports residents disposing of their mineral rights as they wish, and is viewed by many as being an open invitation to gas drilling within the town's borders.
It wasn’t specifically listed on the agenda—the council sprinted through that in less than half an hour—but when the Council Comment item was reached, town supervisor Ed Sykes announced that town residents Stephan Lundgren, his challenger in the last election, and Zeke and Ginny Boyle had come to him with a proposal to form a commission on gas drilling, similar to that formed last year in Cochecton. The commission would allow citizens on both sides of the issue to come together and discuss the pros and cons in a thoughtful way.
The proposal was a reaction to the resolution, which fracking opponents deem precipitate and ill-considered. Indeed, according to a comment made later in the evening, council member John Gain, absent on vacation Wednesday, had commented at a meeting convened earlier in the month to consider the purchase of a truck, that he regretted his "yes" vote on the resolution as having been too hasty.
Lundgren said in describing his reasons for proposing the commission, “It’s very clear that the town board meetings and the public comment period are not the best and most appropriate venue for the entire town discussing in a fair, and impartial, and thorough way such a controversial and important issue… The public comment period does not allow all the stakeholders in the town to express their thoughts and feelings on the issue.”
According to Sykes, he, council member Cindy Herbert and council member Hal Roeder (absent Wednesday on family business) would all be open to such a proposal. He had been unable to reach John Gain for comment. The fifth member, Al Steppich, said he didn’t see anything to be gained by it.
Though a majority of the council appeared to favor the proposal, the ensuing public discussion veered ironically into opposition by some fracking opponents, who felt it didn’t go far enough. They argued that fracking is the town’s most important business, and the matter should be handled in the regular town meetings, not by a commission. After a brief period of increasingly heated discussion, in which individuals on both sides of the issue tried to calm things down, Sykes restored order by insisting that only those who had signed up to comment speak.
Thomas Kappner argued that a commission is not enough; there should also be a moratorium while the issue is examined further. Describing the resolution as an example of Orwellian double speak, he said, “That resolution manages to undermine the property rights of the vast majority of the town’s residents in the name of property rights.”
Several young women stood up to speak about their concerns for their children and families, including Jen Watts, who broke down in tears at the end of her plea to the council to reconsider their stand on gas drilling, and Nyssa Calkin, who said she had turned down a job offer on Maui because this is her paradise. The women pointed out that they and families like theirs would probably move away, or decide not to move in, because of the town’s policies on fracking.
Among the few voices speaking on the other side of the issue was farmer Bill Graby, who represented gas drilling as the face of progress, and asked the crowd whether they would have supported the railroad or Route 97 when those first came through the area. Noel van Swol of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association, who congratulated the board on its courage, cited a long list of towns that had passed similar resolutions and described those responsible for such resolutions as people who “had paid their taxes and are not trust-fund babies,” a phrase to which the crowd responded with laughter and cries of “come on.”
By the end of the meeting, most of the comments had come round to an agreement with the basic idea first voiced by Lundgren: the importance of creating a venue for a civil and scientific dialogue about the pros and cons of drilling. The last word came from Highway Superintendent William Eschenberg: “I have stood here, and I have listened, and I have listened to the antis, and to the pros… what are you trying to do? Destroy [the town] among yourselves? People have to stop the crap and work together on this… find a happy medium and work together. That’s what it’s all about.”
The council took no action on the proposal before adjourning.