Marcellus Shale

Callicoon Comprehensive Plan Generates NIMBY Opposition to Natural Gas

The Town Board of the Town of Callicoon, New York, Sullivan County held a public hearing last week on their draft Town of Callicoon Comprehensive Plan.  We’ve seen a few comprehensive plans recently that were meant to do little more than lay the groundwork for zoning out natural gas development, leading to unintended consequences, but this draft plan, while it hardly gives a carte blanche approval of it, is actually open to natural gas exploration in Callicoon.  Unsurprisingly, the anti-natural gas crowd is opposed to any plan that isn’t adamantly opposed to shale gas development and they came out to say so, while advocates of such development showed up in support of the plan.

The draft comprehensive plan has been in preparation for three years now and is an update of a Natural and Cultural Resource Inventory and Comprehensive Plan prepared in 1980. The new draft addresses natural gas a few times and makes these statements (among others):

Natural Gas Drilling:  Given the presence of the Marcellus Shale in the town, it is possible that natural gas drilling may come to town in the future.  Because of the high volume of water and the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing, there is a concern for the safety of the area’s drinking water.  The storing of water used during the the hydraulic fracturing process also presents a potential source of pollution of our water supply.

Gas drilling is a controversial issue, as evidenced by the survey results, because it raises questions about private property rights and brings potential economic benefits for landowners, businesses and municipalities, but also brings environmental, aesthetic and public health concerns. This plan establishes the intent of the Town of Callicoon community to promote the safety, health, and well ‐ being of the residents of the town, and to protect and enhance the town’s natural environment and character while simultaneously promoting smart growth and economic development. The town recognizes the concerns shared by many of the citizens of the town about the impacts that could be associated with heavy industry and high intensity uses, in particular the operation of natural gas wells, and activities associated with their operation. So that the important resources identified in this Comprehensive Plan Update are maintained in the future, the town will aggressively work with the regulations set forth by the NYSDEC, on any industrial land use permit being reviewed in the Town of Callicoon, to ensure safety and eliminate adverse impacts that may be associated with high intensity uses, including but not limited to natural gas drilling.

This is anything but a ringing endorsement.  We certainly take issue, in fact, with the notion hydraulic fracturing is a pollution threat, when no less an authority than Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator, has said “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”  Additionally, the notion that “storing of water used during the the hydraulic fracturing process also presents a potential source of pollution of our water supply” is completely off-base as only closed loop systems will be permitted in New York State and this is how it’s being done in our region anyway.  Nonetheless, we cannot oppose the core position of the Town of Callicoon, which balances economic and environmental considerations.  That’s never good enough for our friends on the other side, however, who demand nothing less than 100% capitulation to their narrow views.  They are classic “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) types, anti-growth activists or both.

Many people against natural gas development who attended the public hearing were, of course, from the New York City or Northern New Jersey areas, a number of whom have retired to the Town of Callicoon area after careers in the city and, therefore, have no stake in the economy of the area.  Residents who have lived in the town their whole lives, many being farmers or forest owners, feel they have a pretty solid sense of what the area needs in the way of economic development and natural gas exploration is part of that mix.  They came out to show support for a plan that at least allows for it.  It’s a conflict of visions we’ve seen often in this debate, where those who have made money elsewhere move into a struggling community for its scenic beauty and show little concern for the residents who crafted this reality and need economic development opportunities to maintain it.  Their goal of the former has been succinctly described as “pastoral poverty.

Town of Callicoon, NY Landscape
Town of Callicoon, New York

Several people inquired as to the possibility of sending out a survey to every resident in the town asking them one simple question, “Do you, or do you not, support natural gas development in the town?” While this might be a good idea in theory, surveys typically only have a 15%-20% return rate.  The Town of Callicoon did one in 2010 that produced a 17% return – see page 27 of the plan), and such surveys are hugely biased toward the views of respondents accustomed to such techniques of surveying opinion or with time on their hands.  Working people seldom complete such surveys in the same proportions as retirees, for example.  More importantly, in a representative democracy, we depend upon elected officials to do their own surveys of voters in their day to day interactions with constituents and we ask them to develop policy not only based upon opinion but also on constitutional rights and obligations.

Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens attended and, of course, commented (11:00 in video below).  He is a resident of the Town of Callicoon who ran for Supervisor in 2011 and received a whopping 39.87% of the vote, compared to 60.13% for his opponent, the current Supervisor.  Most of us might consider that a pretty valid survey of public opinion, given Bruce’s outspoken opposition to natural gas.  Ferguson said the town had sent out a survey to the residents in 2010 and claimed 88% of the people who commented did not want natural gas development.  His method of calculation is not apparent but, no matter, as the actual data may be found on page 31 of the plan.  What he left out is very revealing as to the tactics of our friends and their lack of popular support, except, of course, among the second-home and retiree crowd.

The survey (taken in 2010) asked property owners, as opposed to residents or voters, to “rank the importance that each of the topic below have to you and your family.  How important is it to have the following in the Town of Callicoon?”.  It then listed several types of development and characteristics for evaluation, among which was “gas drilling.”  Here are the results, conveniently organized into a pie chart.

Importance of Gas Drilling to Town of Callicoon Property Owners
Importance of Gas Drilling to Town of Callicoon Property Owners

Some 421 property owners (second home owners included) filled out the survey and sent it back, out of 2,475 to whom it was mailed.  A total of 29% were part-time residents and another 9% only owned land in the Town of Callicoon (a total of 157), which means a minimum of 37% of the surveys were non-voters.  Undoubtedly, some of the others were also non-voters, so this is anything but a representative source of opinion from either residents or voters.  Even more significant is the fact 66% of the respondents were 55 years or more of age, 81% had no children and 32% were not employed.  Talk about bias!  This thing has more tilt than a Catskill peak.

Even so, the survey only produced 215 respondents who said they thought natural gas development wasn’t important and some of them surely didn’t actually oppose it.  Some 25% said it was important or very important and 18% didn’t care enough to offer an opinion; and this was from a group where 37% lived elsewhere and, therefore, had no particular stake in the local economy! Sure, 215 people sounds like a lot, but when you actually look at the numbers it’s shocking how insignificant the number really is and, of course, it represents less than 9% of those individuals who had an opportunity to respond!  And, if that were not enough, the survey was done two years ago, prior to the draft SGEIS and technological advances such as recycling of produced water and closed loop systems.  Bruce Ferguson can raise his voice, he can stomp, he can pontificate and he can cry, but nothing in this survey supports his point of view as being the majority of either residents or voters.

People in support of natural gas exploration spoke a little later in the hearing. One man discussed how his family had been in the area for over 150 years. He didn’t personally have anything to gain from natural gas development other than the money to be brought in from the ad valorem tax.  Nevertheless, he said he wanted to see his children stay in the area and understands there is no work here for them. He closed his remarks by saying how disappointed he was with his neighbors, noting farmers had never let the population down, but now a minority of the population is letting them down.

Another man was 4th generation to the area and 63 years old. He served on several different boards in the area. He said he wanted the board to accept the Comprehensive Plan they have worked so hard on and move on!

Yet another resident said it was very easy to be against something, but Texas University, Buffalo University and Penn State have all said it can be and has been done safely.  He observed that, in over 60 years there have been no cases of fracturing fluid contaminating any aquifer. He told the board to let the Department of Environmental Conservation regulate the industry and indicated the area could benefit greatly from the ad valorem tax.

A female resident said New Yorkers never fail to miss an opportunity. She argued this has been going on in other states for years and no other states have news stories of people dying or getting sick from natural gas.  If we look at health studies, of course, we see people in Dish, Texas are actually getting healthier because they can now afford health insurance.  Check out some of the comments below!

Near the end of the meeting, as comments were wrapping up a man stated, no doubt accurately, 75% of the town’s dairy farmers are in support of natural gas exploration. He said the last 4-5 years farming has been rough for farmers and they are barely making ends meet. He said 49% of the land was farm land, 40% is woodland and the other approximately 11% percent were homes.  He then wryly observed most of the room was made of the 11% who don’t have to pay the taxes on the open space they now enjoy (in so many words).

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Noel van Swol spoke last and eloquently. He mentioned he attended the meeting to speak for the Sullivan-Delaware Property Association in support of natural gas exploration. He mentioned a Wall Street Journal article indicating there were no health issues in the million wells that have been hydraulically fractured over the last sixty years.  The anti-natural gas crowd harassed him and Bruce Ferguson burst out in childish laughter but Noel is no slouch and is accustomed to going against the second-home grain.  Watch him in action in the video below.

By the end of the hearing, it was clear. The majority of the town residents and voters who owned land completely supported the Comprehensive Plan the Town of Callicoon Town Board proposed.  The only people against it were the people against natural gas exploration and they’re pretty much against everything.  Proving my point, the same survey Bruce Ferguson quoted also produced 51% who said “more residential development” was “not important to have in the town” and 27% said the same about “commercial wind farms.”  So, as you can see, Ferguson and company aren’t just opposed to natural gas, they’re opposed to more of you.  They want everything to themselves.  No wonder he couldn’t break 40% of the vote!

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