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Home Rule: How Communities Can Stand Up to Polluting Industries and Decide the Future of Their Towns

If you think that nothing can be done on the local level to combat big polluters like gas fracking companies, think again.

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We're fortunate here in New York to have much stronger home rule protections than many other states, including Pennsylvania. And unlike Pennsylvania, we here in New York have the power to say "no" to a wide variety of land uses. But before I begin to bore you with the answers to all the legal questions that you had about land use planning in New York but were afraid to ask, let me address one other question: "What are we going to do if we don't focus on extracting methane gas?"

First, the answer to fossil fuel addiction is not to continue the extraction of fossil fuels. Only when we take some of the fossil fuel options off the table will we get serious about alternative energy sources, and not just wind or solar, but biomethane, district heating, geothermal, and options that we haven't even invented yet, because we keep subsidizing the oil and gas industry, convinced that we can't get along with out them. But in fact, they can't get along if they don't have something to sell us.

So, they're the ones scrambling to find more things that they can control and sell us, and they have no incentive to try to find energy that they cannot use to control the world economies and governments. And this choice they offer us of jobs or the environment -- often framed as the economy or the environment -- is a false choice. Healthy environments provide tremendous economic benefits, and a healthy environment leads to economic growth.

Degraded, polluted environments are not a pathway to economic prosperity -- in fact, the opposite. Poverty is the highest in the most polluted states, and research shows that the poor just didn't happen to wind up there; the poverty comes after the environmental devastation. We can look to PA and West Virginia and out west and see whether or not resource extraction has made those communities rich, or the corporations rich and the communities poor.

Which brings us back to the question that got us all out of bed and not doing the things we prefer to do, and instead focused on becoming educated activists and community leaders -- "What can we do?" So now, for the legal lecture.

So, in New York, localities derive their power from the State Constitution, and it's implementing legislation, the Municipal Home Rule Law, and the town, village or city law as appropriate. The New York State Constitution empowers local governments to adopt, amend and repeal zoning regulations, the power to perform comprehensive or other planning work, and the power to enact laws relating to the government, protection, order, health, safety and wellbeing of persons or property within their municipality. I've asked to be here this morning to talk about a land use approach that our law firm has developed that we believe will allow communities to preserve their rural character and local agriculture, tourism and sustainable economies in the face of threatened industrialization.

First, let me explain that I've spent the past two years working on gas drilling issues. When I went to my first gas drilling meeting, I had no particular opinion one way or the other about gas drilling. I certainly wasn't an environmentalist. But thousands of hours of research later, I must tell you that now I don't think that gas drilling is being done safely in our country at this time. You might have already guessed that. But, when I think about the most negative impacts from this looming industrialization, I think of the truck traffic and the associated destruction of our roads, of our enjoyment of our homes, and the negative impacts from all this diesel exhaust. And this is the impact that can most change our region, and has an impact that occurs even when everything goes right.

 
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