Free Advice Can Be Pricey – Very Pricey!
This past Sunday the Town of Bethel, New York held a meeting to consider a ban on developing natural gas from shale. In attendance were lawyers David and Helen Slottje who offer “free” legal advice to towns considering these bans. The fact this meeting was held on a Sunday, after the last being held on at Saturday, raised some controversy. Though “free” at face value the potential for this advice to be anything but appears very real. Especially considering that bans have already been struck down by a U.S. appeals court, that the Slottje’s have politely declined to represent towns in defending these bans, and that the attorney drafting the bans was only admitted to the New York State Bar in 2010 (he practiced in Massachusetts for most of his career). More after the jump.
Slottje’s presentation was unorganized and slightly condescending. His principal message was to urge stricter zoning in Bethel that would effectively ban natural gas exploration. We know how well this has worked for Dryden, New York, where the Town now faces a lawsuit challenging its authority to enact precisely this type of ban. Read what’s wrong with this approach in this excellent Memorandum of Law prepared for the lawsuit.
Slottje also argued your land isn’t yours if you have different aspirations than your neighbors. He essentially suggested it isn’t legal to use your land if it makes someone else unhappy. This is a new concept in the United States of America which was founded on religious freedom and individual property rights. So much for those rights and century’s worth of case law.
Creating a zoning law that “might not” be challenged in court and “may” hold up if a town is sued is anything but a comforting legal position. But that was exactly the message that was delivered. Slottje admitted he had also “helped” Dryden with their law (the one that is now being challenged in court). Undoubtedly, that law relies upon on the same legal theories presented to Bethel. Providing less confidence to those potentially footing the bill Slottje informed the Town Board he can’t assist if the rule is challenged as he isn’t a qualified litigation attorney. Sounds like a specious proposal to me.
Slottje’s remarks were inconsistent and by the end of the meeting, he seemed as though he was losing his composure (not for the first time, he once told a questioner to “Lawyer Up, Big Guy“). At this venue, he had problems directly answering questions, as you can see for yourself in the videos included in this post. His proposal also created some serious questions from the Town Board. Through the proposed amendment Bethel would limit the amount of water a company, or anyone for that matter, could use within a given time period. The proposal would also limit development that would be permitted to take place in the area. The Town Board, however, seemed reluctant to restrict industrial development of all kinds – it just wanted to ban natural gas exploration. They also told Slottje they wanted to increase the limit on water usage, which, in the proposed amendment, is limited to 100,000 gallons every 30 days.
By the end of the meeting skepticism had grown regarding Slottje’s proposal and he seemed to get angry at comments and questions he didn’t want to hear, especially when some people stood up and asked how the town could trust a lawyer who couldn’t represent them in court. They seemed to be coming to the realization that free legal advice could, indeed, be vastly overpriced.