NORTH ROYALTON – Last week, the city sent a message loud and clear to Columbus that it wants more say so when it comes to oil and gas drilling.
On Tuesday city council passed a resolution in support of Ohio Senate Bill 17 that would require oil drillers to disclose to health care professionals and emergency responders a list of all drilling chemicals being used, something that is not required now.
And, council gave the law department its blessing to support Munroe Falls in their Ohio Supreme Court case, Munroe Falls vs. Beck Energy Corporation, which seeks to preserve home rule and allow cities to have some authority in where oil and gas wells go in their own communities.
In that lawsuit, Munroe Falls claims that Beck Energy did not acquire a necessary city permit, zoning certificate or a right-of-way construction permit for its latest well which is required under home rule per the city charter.
Under state code however, Beck needed just a state permit from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which it had. A Summit County Common Pleas Court judge ruled in favor of the city, but the state’s Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, which Munroe Falls appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“The argument has always been that drilling is an industrial use (and not residential),” said Assistant Law Director Donna Vozar. “Basically, Munroe Falls had some of its own ordinances saying it had some authority over drilling. But the Ohio Revised Code grants the ODNR sole authority and regulation over drilling. The question is who has the authority? Communities should have a say in what takes place in our zoning and in our communities.”
North Royalton’s gesture last week is the same as what the city of Broadview Heights – as well as Euclid, Mansfield and the Village of Amesville – did recently which is to join in the case as a “friend of the court,” which is merely a show of support and does not cost the city any dollars.
Charter communities, like North Royalton and Munroe Falls, have the provision under the state constitution to exert home rule, which allows that charter community to govern its city in ways that differ from the statutory requirements that govern non-charter cities, Law Director Tom Kelly explained.
Both communities’ charters state that council shall determine the manner in which land shall be used and grants council the authority to determine zoning laws, Kelly added.
So under home rule, a charter city could limit oil and gas drilling to industrial areas for example. But this is not the case as state laws, which have never been tested at the Ohio Supreme Court level until now, trump home rule when it comes to drilling.
That is because in 2004, cities were stripped of any and all control of gas drilling and that power was given exclusively to the ODNR. The state statutes regarding drilling are uniform and so thereby allow drilling anywhere in the state without differentiating between urban and rural areas.
The Munroe Falls case could change that.
“Under the state statute, the oil drillers can put a well wherever they can get a 20-acre parcel together. If the Munroe Falls ordinance were to be upheld, we might be able to limit them to certain specific zoning classifications and exclude them from residential areas,” Kelly said.
Oil wells are very controversial and have often divided neighbors, even council, in the past. Residents, by law, have rights to the minerals on their properties; however, urban drilling strikes a huge nerve in this densely populated community with concerns ranging from residents’ safety, health, quality of life to diminished property values.
Wells are often pitched as safe by drillers with accidents being a rarity, but North Royalton has witnessed numerous mechanical malfunctions, the two most notable being the incident at the Valley Vista Elementary School well in 2008 and the Mercury oil spill in 2011.
Recently residents and councilmen have been on the same page in fighting new wells in North Royalton.
In fact right now Cutter Oil Company wants to drill another well in the Planets subdivision and stated intentions to mandatorily force pool two residents and the city into this drilling unit. Cutter has not yet followed through on the pooling.
Kelly, like most all city officials, wants drilling to be limited to certain areas and not practiced in residential areas.
“As a ‘friend of the court,’ we are joining together and saying that we want to be able to self govern, we want our voice to be heard, we want our home rule powers to have some meaning,” Kelly said. “I don’t believe this statute is entitled to uniform, statewide applications. Drive into Hinckley and you see oil wells here and there and they aren’t necessarily bothering anyone because they are hundreds and hundreds of yards away from houses. Go into the Planets, and you see these right in someone’s backyard.”
Ward 4 Councilman Paul Marnecheck, like Kelly, said drilling legislature should not be a one size fits all matter in a state like Ohio that is geographically diverse.
“I feel when it comes to municipal drilling, the residents of North Royalton can do a better job with how to have this in our city than a bureaucrat in Columbus. I hope this shows the Ohio Supreme Court that Ohio is not homogeneous and that we cannot have a one size fits all approach to drilling. The best way to make sure communities have laws that reflect their unique character is to strengthen home rule,” he said.
Even councilmen who were more open to drilling in years past have changed their stance.
Ward 6 Councilman Dan Kasaris said he is appalled that council has the say so on a shed placement but not something as serious as an oil well.
“We can regulate the placement of fences, driveways, sheds and houses but not an oil well? To me that fact is inconsistent with the rule of those who reside within the boundary of any city,” Kasaris said. “Cities need to be able to control when and where oil wells are placed.”
Mayor Bob Stefanik has made no secret of his stance on urban drilling and is in favor of these two moves.
“It’s something we all agree we need to pursue, not only this issue of oil drilling, but home rule as a whole, as a bigger picture. We need to get some of the rights back to communities to let them govern how they want to govern,” he said. “We differ than other parts of the state, so we should be able to govern according to our local conditions.”
The Munroe Falls case coupled with the resolution in support of S.B. 17 definitely sends a message, said Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw.
“Our state lawmakers hold the cards, and they need to listen to the people. We are the ones who elected them to represent us. The state hasn’t done enough to listen to the people. We are doing what we can within our power, but we need the state to do their fair share in addressing this issue,” he said. “We need to put the pressure on Columbus, and that’s what we are doing.”