Town ponders comments on hydrofracking report

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Councilman Anthony Sherman, pictured, agreed with Councilman William Bichteman’s opinion that, instead of revising Westerlo’s report on high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, the town should investigate zoning options to address the process without an outright ban.

WESTERLO — Several residents voiced concerns on May 6 that ways in which  high-volume hydraulic fracturing would hurt their community were not reflected in a draft report that was begun two years ago. At the town board’s meeting this week, though, two councilmen on the five-member board favored moving forward with zoning changes while avoiding a ban on the gas-extraction process.

“They all pretty much said the same thing: they don’t want it,” Supervisor Richard Rapp said, after the May 6 regular meeting. He said he wanted to consult with the town board before determining what would happen next.

After the board’s work meeting on May 20, Rapp said he hadn’t made up his mind on the issue, but Councilman William Bichteman had announced during the meeting that he does not want the town to ban hydraulic fracturing. Instead, Bichteman said, the town board should look at other measures, such as regulating the use of its roads. He questioned whether revising the report would be an adequate reason for renewing the town’s moratorium on natural-gas drilling.

“I think that at some point…hydrofracking may be a positive thing for the town,” said Bichteman of his concern over prohibiting the process, adding that some owners of large tracts of land in Westerlo would welcome the opportunity to allow natural-gas extraction.

Councilman Anthony Sherman said he agreed with Bichteman.

“I’ve got to ponder it myself,” said Councilman Alfred Field. Councilman Theodore Lounsbury was absent from the May 20 meeting.

The special May 6 meeting was held for comments on a report researched and revised by a committee of volunteers for the town. Roughly two dozen people attended.

According to Bichteman, one of about 15 speakers was in favor of the natural gas-extraction process, called hydrofracking, over which the state has been deliberating for several years.

New York’s highest court is expected to hear arguments on June 3 regarding the question of whether a local municipality can prohibit hydrofracking.

Westerlo has had a moratorium on gas exploration and extraction in effect while it researches and decides how to address the issue. The tip of the natural-gas rich Marcellus Shale formation deep underground reaches into western Albany County, including Westerlo, though its viability there has been questioned.

Some states, like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, have permitted the process. It is described by advocates as an economic boon, allowing landowners and the country at large to tap into a domestic fossil fuel.

“If we want to maintain stewardship over our land, we must stand together and stop this reckless assault on our environment. And I strongly urge that we, as a community, take that stand right here and now,” resident Robert Severance wrote in a letter to the town board, in which he gave examples of the negative consequences of natural-gas drilling in other states.

Severance and other residents insisted that both the original and revised versions of the report omitted information regarding the potential dangers of allowing high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the area. Dianne Sefcik listed exhaustively the topics not covered by the report, among them the costs and benefits of leasing mineral rights, local impacts to water and air quality, effects on real estate, Westerlo’s relevant laws, quality of life, and the town’s legal options.

Westerlo’s boundaries include the watershed for the Alcove and Basic Creek reservoirs, which supply drinking water for the city of Albany.

Bichteman said during the May 20 meeting that the city of Albany has not contacted the town about high-volume hydraulic fracturing. He said the city can lobby the state government if it is concerned about drilling being permitted near its water supply.

Both Sefcik and her husband, John, a member of the zoning board of appeals, asked, in separate prepared letters, that any relevant conflicts of interest, such as those among committee and town board members, be disclosed. They also noted that the town’s report makes use of information from the oil and gas industry.

Dianne Sefcik asked that the board reject its current report and insist on a report that addresses the “health, safety, and welfare of the community.”

“A bulk of information, reflecting numerous concerns, has previously been submitted by several residents to the town board and the HF committee (s),” wrote Anita Marrone. “Almost all of this info has not been included in either report.” Two Marrone relatives also wrote letters.

The report was researched and compiled for the town board’s review in May 2013. After Councilman Bichteman said it was disorganized and in some cases wrong, the board voted unanimously to have it modified before it decided whether or not to accept the document.

Bichteman is listed in the draft report as the chairman of the research committee that wrote it, though he has denied that he served that role.

He said at the May 20 meeting that he had read similar reports produced by the towns of Berne and Rensselaerville, and that Westerlo’s was not his only source of information.

Other business

In other business, the town board at the May 6 meeting:

— Unanimously authorized the purchase of a new truck for the highway superintendent;

— Voted to increase the fee for creating a crushed-rock driveway for new property owners, who had formerly paid a fee of $15 for town highway employees’ time, the rocks, and a pipe for drainage. Now, the fee is $150 and the property owner is required to purchase the pipe;

— Voted, 4 to 1, to authorize Planning Board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch to spend up to $200 to purchase food and use supplies in the town hall kitchen. Councilman Anthony Sherman voted against the motion, he said, because the materials were for the Community Activity Committee, which is currently dormant without a chairperson;

— Heard from Bichteman that water-quality tests for the Westerlo water district indicate contaminants are below state standards;

— Discussed how a request to see a plat plan should be handled. Verch said she was asked to see a plan by a property owner whose land abuts a major subdivision. He had driven from New York City, she said. He called Town Hall and was told the plan was not on file because the deputy town clerk couldn’t locate it.

“He’s an abutter, he has a right to see the application,” said Leonard Laub, a former chairman of the town’s planning board, who was sitting in the gallery.

Building inspector Edwin Lawson said he set out in the meeting room an unofficial copy provided by surveyors with the application. In the future, he said, he could make sure the plans are in the town clerk’s office.

“Certainly he has an opportunity to scrutinize it, but it’s done at the public hearing,” Lawson said of the property owner from New York City.

Bichteman said the town shouldn’t release documents that are preliminary and the property owner should have been told the plan wasn’t available; and

— Heard Bichteman explain the findings of the State Office of the Comptroller, which conducted an audit of the town’s water district fund and justice court, as they related to the water committee he sits on.

“The water district has spent more money than it had to work with, around $60,000,” said Bichteman. “The water committee was formed specifically for that reason.”

He went on to say that the district had not kept records of how many gallons were being used. This has been resolved for the past two billing periods, he said, and the operational expenses for the water system have been reduced by 25 percent.

The audit report noted that the water fund had borrowed money from the town’s general fund, which wasn’t paid off for a period of years. Bichteman said the water district’s budget is now “ahead of break even.”

Of the report’s recommendation for a rainy-day fund, he said, “I don’t see that happening in next few years.”

Dianne Sefcik said the water committee’s members should be expanded to include non-district taxpayers.

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