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Gas and local control

Challenge is balancing citizen concerns with industrial use

As a La Plata County commissioner, I was shocked to see the recent ad in The Durango Herald undermining the notion of local control in decisions about land-use policy when it comes to gas-and-oil development. I clearly understand the need for a balanced, common sense energy policy, but I strongly oppose the state interfering in the affairs of local officials, who have been elected specifically to protect the health, safety, property values and long-term economic vitality of their communities.

Local governments need clarification and affirmation that they have the authority to make zoning and land-use decisions as it pertains to gas-and-oil development. The county commissioners already make these decisions for nearly all other industrial processes within La Plata County – why would we make an exception for just one industry?

Longer-term residents will remember well what happened when Amoco – now BP – announced in 1988 plans to drill more than 1,000 natural gas wells in La Plata County. Quite honestly, we were completely unprepared to deal with the impacts of drilling rigs popping up everywhere.

Many wells were being drilled 150 feet from homes. Heavy truck traffic tore up county roads. Dust from the truck traffic affected people’s health and air quality. Citizens complained for years about the noise from drilling and fracking. And, because of the experimental nature at the time of extracting gas from underground coal seams, methane contamination of water wells was prevalent.

At the urging of many residents, La Plata County adopted regulations governing the land-use impacts of gas-and-oil development. Today, our county regulations still serve as a model for preventing and minimizing impacts from gas-and-oil development.

Fast forward 25 years, and we have the state of Colorado and energy companies suing local governments that prevent them from balancing the health and safety of their citizens with responsible gas-and-oil practices. Longmont, Fort Collins and Lafayette are among the cities forced to spend thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to fight lawsuits that challenge their right to address the concerns of their residents.

The shifting legal landscape demonstrates local governments currently do not have the ability to balance the health and safety of it citizens with gas-and-oil development – despite local governments having the ability to make those same decisions when it comes to every other type of industrial land use.

Oil-and-gas development has a significant impact on the health, safety and property values of the people who live near the wells, on the Western Slope and Front Range alike. Knowing that gas extraction is projected to exponentially increase in the coming years, striking the right balance is an urgent concern for local governments.

In many communities, wells are being placed too close to schools, parks and homes when technology allows operators to drill more than a mile under the ground. Inappropriate energy industrial operations are degrading the value of property. And now, the state of Colorado is suing municipalities for trying to make common-sense land-use decisions to address these problems.

While the state should have the latitude to set broad statewide protections that serve as minimum standards, it’s clear local governments must be able to address community concerns and go beyond those standards, when appropriate. I call on the state Legislature and governor to clarify and codify the rights of local governments to make land-use decisions directly affecting their communities.

La Plata residents expect their local elected officials to balance the need to protect the health, safety, property values and long-term economic vitality of our county with what the oil-and-gas industry wants to do in the short-term. I reject a one-size-fits-all approach – and most of our neighbors do, too.

Gwen Lachelt is a La Plata County commissioner. Reach her at 382-6215.

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