Pulling the Curtain Back on the Binghamton Ban Vote
It is a political axiom that what’s said is often the opposite of what’s meant. We saw it this week in Binghamton when the lame-duck City Council, with a six vote majority (four of whom will be out of office in a few days), rushed through a local law to ban natural gas exploration and development in the City. A reasonably informed citizen of common sense might be forgiven for thinking this meant there was a possibility of such activity taking place. After all, you wouldn’t bother banning something if it wasn’t going to happen anyway, would you?
Well, yes, you would if you’re interested in making a political statement without paying the price of your decision defending a lawsuit from an aggrieved party. This is the cruel lesson of politics. Binghamton, at the urging of its mayor, environmental attorney Matt Ryan, enacted a poorly crafted statute that almost certainly violates New York State Law and is wholly unnecessary as a means of achieving its stated objectives. Moreover, City Council acted as it did precisely because there was nothing at stake for the individuals making the decision. Call it calculating, call it cold, call it cynical, but it was surely clever.
Binghamton politics is a world where “sustainable” development means trying to halt whatever business activity isn’t blessed by the politicos in charge, where “green” jobs means no discernible jobs, where a “diverse” economy means one without natural gas (unless, of course, it is produced in someone else’s backyard) and where any natural gas development whatsoever means a one-industry town. It is also where an industry that has absolutely no leases within the City and is constrained by State setback regulations from drilling anywhere within it is, nonetheless, labeled as a threat. That much was very clear from the Council member speeches before their votes.
The Council, to be fair, ran the meeting in a professional manner. But one has to wonder if folks such as Bill Huston — who attempted to disrupt an SRBC hearing last week in Scranton with a Osho Nadabrahma-style humming excercise and his own chanting while playing media guy (4:15 of this video) — would have extended the same respect to the City Council if he wasn’t dealing with a deck stacked heavily in his favor. Actually, we don’t have to wonder, do we? We saw how natural gas advocates acted in Binghamton – very respectfully – versus how the self-styled “pacifist” Huston and gang acted in Wilkes-Barre. Behavior is strictly situational for that crew.
Back to the City Council for just a moment — because not only was the timing of its ban ordinance something less than heroic, but the substance left a lot to be desired as well. After all, if the position of the City Council is that natural gas isn’t clean, isn’t a creator of jobs, can’t be developed safely, and doesn’t enhance American security — then why consume it? Why not pass a ban preventing their constituents from even using the stuff? Wouldn’t that be a much more honest way to achieve the same basic goal, which, in this case, is stopping natural gas development?
Of course it would. But City Council is too craven to consider something like that — especially given the amount of natural gas Binghamton uses to keep warm. This data comes from the 2010 Census :
It requires a pretty narrow view of things to be from a community where an estimated 17,485 households out of 20,393 use natural gas to heat their homes and then to say “we don’t want it developed here in our backyard” — but that’s exactly what the City Council has said, perhaps demonstrating, as Napolean Bonaparte observed, that “in politics stupidity is not a handicap.” The Binghamton Council’s actions look less stupid than self-serving, however. It appears they were simply more wedded to the idea of giving their ideological soul mates and Mayor Ryan a parting gift than anything else. Somehow, they were able to ignore the 30% savings in home heating costs that Marcellus Shale development is bringing to communities like their own. One would think the average savings of $926 per household (some $16.2 million in total for Binghamton’s homeowners) would mean something and enter into the political calculation, but it obviously did not. How can this be?
Even more to the point, how could the Council ignore the message of Holiday Inn General Manager Bob Greene about what Marcellus Shale business had meant for his hotel and his ability to put City residents to work? Here is what he said:
Well, the answer to both these questions can be found in the explanations of outgoing Councilman Robert Weslar, who cynically explained in the video following (at 4:00) that he didn’t believe it mattered, the benefits were temporary and limited to the oil and gas industry itself (this was after hearing Bob Greene) and it was preferable for Binghamton to concentrate on becoming a “lean green machine” (after wintertime is over, of course — they wouldn’t want anyone to freeze!)
It was, in other words, all a matter of ideology, combined with some pretty serious hypocrisy. Councilman Martin Gerchman countered all this (23:35) by suggesting the only urgency connected with the year-end action was to get it under the wire so a later repeal by a new Council could be vetoed by Mayor Ryan. He also noted the Council would certainly have its hand out for the hotel and other sales tax revenue attributable to natural gas development and begged for an explanation as to where those ephemeral “green jobs” might be. He got none, of course.
Ryan, of course, is behind the natural gas ban and seemed eager to dispel inconvenient facts brought out about his city compared to Williamsport. One of his aides questioned testimony indicating Williamsport’s GDP was doing better than Binghamton’s, noting the latter had a bigger economy. He was told this was to be expected given the relative size of the two cities but Williamsport had, because of natural gas, grown by 7.8% in 2010 while Binghamton had grown by only 2.7%. Moreover, Williamsport was the seventh fastest growing metro economy in the U.S. and was filling an industrial park even as it was being opened, not that any of this mattered to the majority on Council or Mayor Ryan. Economics isn’t their thing, after all – political ideology is.
Politics is never pretty and anyone who expects it to be, is hopelessly naive. Neverthelss, the people have a right to expect at least a modicum of respect for the law and that, too, was missing. Watch Councilman Weslar flippantly address the Environmental Assessment (0:45 to 3:25), which is required by the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) before the City could act on its ban. SEQRA classifies “the adoption of changes in the allowable uses within any zoning district, affecting 25 or more acres of the district” as a Type I action that mandates completion of a Full Environmental Assessment Form (EAF).
There can be no doubt that is what happened in this instance as Binghamton eliminated a whole class of uses for every zoning district in the City. The lead agency (the City itself in this case) is obligated to review the EAF, study the criteria of SEQRA, thoroughly analyze the identified relevant areas of environmental concern to determine if the action may have a significant adverse impact on the environment; and set forth its determination of significance in a written form containing a reasoned elaboration and providing reference to any supporting documentation. This is referenced in SEQRA case law as the requisite “hard look.”
Does anyone seriously think spending less than three minutes reviewing the environmental consequences of a matter that just consumed four hours of discussion, where numerous environmental issues were raised, constitutes the “hard look” demanded by law? Note that Councilman Weslar was the only Council member to speak and all he did was read a series of conclusions written for him, none of which addressed anything or provided any reference to supporting documentation. There was no hard look at environmental impacts. There wasn’t even a glance. There was zero discussion, before the negative declaration was adopted, of any of the problems this action might create for the downtown environment, despite much hearing evidence that it could result in job losses, hotel closings and extreme difficulty in recovering from earlier flood devastation. The conclusions Weslar read included one indicating consistency with local comprehensive planning. Really? Is poking a finger in the eye of downtown hoteliers a part of Binghamton’s comprehensive economic development plan? No, of course not. The SEQRA review was a farce and Binghamton businesses and residents deserved better. What they got instead was ideology delivered on a plate.
Worse, the City apparently didn’t bother consulting the County either. A call to the County Planning Department indicated no submission had been made by the City to the County under Section 239 of the New York State General Municipal Law, which mandates prior review by the county planning agency of any City adoption or amendment of a zoning ordinance or local law. The ban that was adopted doesn’t include the word zoning, but it is clearly a zoning law, as any reader can easily determine from reviewing its procedures and its focus on land use issues. It doesn’t matter what you call it – if it deals with zoning issues, and this law does, it’s zoning. Interestingly, the ban imposes a two-year moratorium, which would imply the City is going to amend its zoning laws at some point, but it never uses the word “zoning” and never promises future action on anything, making it clear, as Councilman Gerchman noted, that the ban is really intended to be permanent. Yet, it does not meet any of the standards for a local law involved with zoning issues, once again demostrating what a total farce the entire thing is.
Farce is what we have come to expect whenever the Park Foundation-funded Community Environmental Defense Council (Helen and Davis Slottje) is involved, and, as expected, they were deeply involved in this case. The minutes of the December 5th Council meeting, in fact say the law was introduced as:
RL 11-210. A Local Law to effect a prohibition of natural gas and petroleum exploration and extraction activities, underground storage of natural gas, and disposal of natural gas or petroleum extraction, exploration and production wastes.
Presented by: David Slottje, Community Environmental Defense Counsel; Helen Slottje, Community Environmental Defense Counsel (sic)
Request for Legislation supported by: Weslar, Webb, Massey, Collins, Kramer (approved via phone, December 6, 2011)
Sent to Corporation Counsel to be drafted as legislation.
So, this ban was the work of the CEDC hired guns, who have repeatedly targeted communities without a single cubic foot of economically recoverable natural gas in hopes of building momentum for action elsewhere. You’ll remember David Slottje is the fellow who attempted to intimidate a local anti-gas businessman, who happened not to like Slottje’s methods, with a “Lawyer Up, Big Guy” threat (in writing no less).
Such is the professionalism of the adviser the City of Binghamton relied upon to draft its law . Who else would pretend the City can avoid the hassle of complying with State law on zoning just by avoiding the use of the term? Who else who would tell the City it can supersede the Environmental Conservation Law with nonsense of this sort on the cockamamie theory a ban doesn’t constitute regulation? Who else would trivialize the SEQRA process in the name of his own narrow environmental objectives? There’s always the possibility, one supposes, Slottje wasn’t the culprit giving such advice, but someone did and the minutes suggest who. The Corporation Counsel certainly wasn’t saying much. Moreover, one couldn’t help but notice, among the first people to arise from the front of the room with a standing ovation at the vote were – you guessed it – David and Helen Slottje.
Where does this leave things? Well, about where they were, except the Binghamton City Council and Mayor Ryan (contrary to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, who wisely vetoed a ban) have now managed to tell an industry using their hotels, hiring their residents and supporting their community causes to, quite simply, drop dead. It won’t affect the industry inself in any real, meaningful way — but it could have serious repercussions on Binghamton. Meanwhile it suffers and Williamsport revives.