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Southern Tier town sued for barring discussion of fracking

Matt Richmond

The eastern Broome County Town of Sanford has been sued by two environmental groups for passing a resolution that bans discussion of fracking at town board meetings.

From the complaint filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy:

Defendant’s September 11, 2012 resolution forbidding all discussion of natural gas development during the public participation portion of Town Board meetings is an unconstitutional restriction on speech that violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution of the State of New York. Defendant’s speech ban has harmed and will continue to harm plaintiffs’ members unless and until defendant is enjoined from its unlawful conduct.

The complaint includes a list of the pro-fracking measures taken by the Sanford board:

On or about June 2008, the Town of Sanford leased land to XTO Energy, Inc., for the purpose of natural gas extraction within the Town. On November 10, 2009, the Town licensed XTO Energy, Inc., to use a Town road to withdraw water for use in natural gas extraction. The Town Board also passed a resolution calling on the State Legislature to “stand aside regarding the issue of drilling in the Marcellus Shale and allow DEC to complete the SGEIS and issue permits for horizontal drilling.” The Town further resolved that then-Governor Paterson should veto any proposed statewide moratorium or ban on drilling in New York State. On August 9, 2011, the Town Board passed a resolution supporting the application of Bluestone Gas Corporation of New York, Inc., to the New York Public Service Commission for approval to construct a natural gas pipeline within the Town. On May 8, 2012, the Town Board again passed a resolution urging the State to adopt rules for natural gas development. The Board also resolved that, in its view, pursuit of a Town ban or moratorium on high-volume fracking would be irresponsible and premature. On September 5, 2012, Town of Sanford Supervisor Dewey Decker, acting in his official capacity, signed a letter to Governor Cuomo urging the Governor to move forward as soon as possible with high-volume fracking. The letter alleged that delay was “only empowering opponents” of high-volume fracking.

Town Attorney Herb Kline stood by the town's decision to prevent keep hydrofracking out of the public comment period, saying the discussion of fracking has taken up too much time during town meetings.

Kline, in an interview with the New York Times:

“The open meetings law gives the public the right to attend, listen and observe,” he said. “It says nothing about the public’s right to speak.” Similarly, he said there is no “gag order” as alleged by the board’s critics because residents can say, print, publish, e-mail or otherwise express their viewpoints on fracking anywhere in town, they’re just not guaranteed the right to do it at every public meeting. Still, he said, if the speaking restrictions, in his view, are consistent with the state open meetings law, residents still had the final say. “If you don’t like what the people in government are doing, you can vote the rascals out,” he said.

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