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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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So, as you listen to me here today -- and just as importantly, when you listen to other advocates including those for the gas drilling companies, the regulatory partners, and landowner coalitions -- you need to know what is motivating that person. Our motivation and bias is that we are looking into this issue not from the perspective of, what can we do to help localities accommodate industry? What can we do to make sure that we don't pass a road use ordinance that industry says is too onerous? Or, what federal or state funding we might be able to find so we can build infrastructure or train our school children to take some of the most dangerous jobs that are out there?

Our firm is looking at this issue from, what can we do to say "no"? So, that's my bias -- our bias as a firm.

In fact, I'm proud of this bias, because given the way lawyers and law firms and corporations work, usually lawyers are only out looking for clients who can pay them. But how can an eagle, the night sky, or the Delaware River pay a lawyer's bill? So, with the help of grants and donations from regular people, we seek to give a voice to the environment and individual citizens who would not otherwise have the funds to work with a lawyer on environmental causes.

As we've investigated and researched the problems with industrialization and truck traffic and the toxic waste that the industry conveniently calls "brine" -- and we didn't just accept what industry and their regulatory partners and the landowner coalitions and all of their lawyers had to say as a starting point. When we simply started at the beginning and asked the question so many of you have asked, "Can they really just come into our town and do whatever they want -- put a drilling rig right next to my house or on a farmer's field, and just dump exploration and production waste in our county landfill? Haul toxic fluids in for recycling? Bang pipes next door all night long? Coat our homes with silica dust?"

We concluded that if a town used zoning to prohibit the land-based and community-based negative impacts of such activities, the answer was "no," they can't do that, at least not if the town has the political will to say "no" and follow certain procedures and a process in getting there.

"But surely, this can't be true," you might say. "We've been told for so long and by so many that there's nothing we can do." So, let's run through the objections that we hear when we talk about the proposal that towns can draft a zoning ordinance that protects the health, safety and welfare of its residents through the prohibition of high-impact industrial uses.

And when I talk today about our proposed law, I am speaking of this draft law that we prepared for a town gas drilling task force in Tompkins County, although a similar law can be drafted for other municipalities that's tailored to that community's comprehensive plan and community goals.

So first, some people have asked, "Does the town have the right to exclude or ban an industrial use -- any industrial us?" -- not just, say, gas drilling. These people have heard that towns are restricted from prohibiting certain uses, such as adult entertainment or housing for people with very limited means. And so, they wonder, do the use restrictions apply to banning industrial uses? They do not. Those restrictions are very limited and very specific in nature. They have to do with the protection of constitutional rights, specifically First Amendment rights such as free speech. But there is no question that exclusion of a specified industrial use is a proper and legitimate use of land use laws.

 
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