A Brave Natural Gas Fight in Middlefield
I had the opportunity late last week to meet with Jennifer Huntington, the dairy farmer from the Town of Middlefield, Otsego County, New York, who brought a natural gas lawsuit against Middlefield for its ban on natural gas development. The Otsego County Supreme Court (lowest court level in New York), sided with the town and an appeal has been filed.
When the Town of Middlefield, New York enacted a ban on natural gas development several months ago, it frustrated many landowners whose rights were blithely dismissed by the action. One resident and local dairy farmer, Jennifer Huntingdon, was upset enough by the decision and the way the town board dismissed were her property rights that she sued the town. The initial local decision on the lawsuit went in favor of the town, and is now being appealed. I had the pleasure, recently, to sit down with Huntington and get her perspective on the lawsuit.
Here are the questions I put to Jennifer Huntington, and her answers, as she continues to fight the good fight for the rights of all upstate landowners.
“What does natural gas mean to you and your area personally?”
Huntington discussed the fact the Marcellus Shale is far too shallow to develop in Middlefield according to the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. Nonetheless, she indicated her research suggested there was potential to develop the Utica Shale. Such natural gas development could, in her judgment, save local small businesses that now struggling, provide a base of economic support for the hospital, stabilize school enrollments and help sustain other public services.
“What made you decide to sue when they banned natural gas development?”
She told me there were several reasons. She was concerned, for example, with what restriction might come next if her town could ban development of her natural gas resources. Where will a line be drawn? If they can ban natural gas, they may tell her next how she can and cannot farm, she said. Her view is the state needs to be in control of developing vast resources such as this and towns should only be there to facilitate what the state decides. She also wanted to stand up for landowners rights. Property owners, Jennifer explained, secured the land from the center of the earth up to the sky when they bought their land and, as she notes, who are five town officials to say what they can and cannot do with the resource they rightfully own?
“What was your reaction to the initial ruling?”
The first lawsuit was decided by a locally elected judge in favor of the town’s power to ban natural gas development. She told me she was certainly disappointed, but not especially surprised.
“Can you discuss the appeal and how you feel you will do this time around?”
Huntington’s attorney has now officially filed the appeal for the case. She said it made perfect sense to appeal the case. The appeal can be bolstered with additional evidence and there are additional arguments to make and precedents to cite. The thrust of her appeal will be to explain why natural gas development is so vastly different than the surface mining circumstances the local judge used to make his decision. It is nearly impossible to develop natural gas resources when one town support it and a neighboring town bans it, for instance, which is not the case with surface mining. It would be difficult to get from point A to point C without intersecting point B. She also said the town, if it were allowed to prevail in this matter and interject itself into matters it has never before regulated, it might next decide farmers can’t operate on Sundays or tractors can’t can’t be driven on certain roads.
“How do you think the Binghamton decision will affect the appeal?”
She pointed out it will be different because Binghamton only had a moratorium while Middlefield has a full ban on natural gas. The case though, according to Huntington, was very telling. She pointed out the rules of due process need to be followed and she was especially happy to see the moratorium challenged and defeated. It indicated landowner rights cannot be dismissed upon a whim.
“What do you think about the state still reviewing the SGEIS?”
Huntington again said she was disappointed, but not surprised. She hoped, as most upstate New Yorkers, the SGEIS would be completed by the November 29, 2012 due date. Going through the process again would be grueling, she noted, and expressed frustration with the manner in which the state has trampled upon landowner rights with its endless delays in developing responsible rules.
Huntington, in some final remarks, touched on several important points other people often disregard. She said the farmers she knows would not “take the money and run,” as some have alleged. They would not move away, nor would they retire. Rather, the farmers she knows, including herself, would use any money received from natural gas development to reinvest in their properties and continue to farm. People choose to farm because it is something they enjoy doing and they are proud to pass their farms down from generation to generation, she explained.
She made a great observation by asking how many people who claim the farmers will take the money, retire and move are people who have taken their pension, retired, and moved to the area in which we all have to make our living. Her question really crystalizes the issue – much of what passes for argument among anti-gas folks is simply a reflection of them having already gotten theirs and they resort to suggesting others might do what they already did to make their points. Farmers don’t need to sell out and to enjoy their life, however. They love the land and want to stick with it.
Huntington also wants people to remember our society needs blue collar jobs, not just white ones. The blue collar jobs are the ones that seem to get disregarded by those, in particular, who have moved to the area for its beauty. They don’t appear to appreciate how extraordinarily difficult it can be to harvest a living from these gorgeous landscapes we all enjoy. She believes natural gas development would, therefore, be a huge benefit to her area and it is, perhaps, the first among reasons why she decided to appeal and stand up for landowner rights.
We are all behind you, Jennifer! Thank you for taking a stand and fighting this fight.