Commissioners hear from business community about proposed ordinance
Local business owners and farmers let Pocahontas County Commissioners know exactly how they felt about a proposed ordinance that had the purpose of restricting activity around drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale.
If they were voting, it would have been unanimous.
They were against it.
The county commission has three options for dealing with the oil and gas drilling industry when and if it arrives here: 1) a moratorium, which would likely be struck down by the courts because county governments have no authority to regulate the drilling industry. 2) an ordinance, and its accompanying legal enforcement, zoning. An ordinance could regulate drilling's peripheral activities such as traffic, air, water and noise pollution. 3) a resolution, which would have no legal enforcement.
Commissioners had consulted with their attorneys on November 1 to read over a proposed draft ordinance that would restrict not only the drilling industry, but others, such as a quarry, a slaughterhouse, tannery and other industries that "could threaten the environment of Pocahontas County." The ordinance also restricted certain business activity within an unspecified number of feet from a school, church or residence and the amount of water that could be extracted from natural water supplies and the disposal of water not fit for human consumption.
Commissioners themselves seemed to have no stomach for the ordinance as it was written, but opted to discuss the draft in public.
"None of us cared for that fairly heavy-handed language," commission president David Fleming said last Tuesday. "My hope and intent was not to go toward zoning in response to Marcellus shale [drilling]."
Commissioner Martin Saffer said Pocahontas County had, in its past, faced issues contentiously when there was no real threat. Saffer said that a mainstem dam on the Greenbrier River, a proposed airport and Marlinton's proposed floodwalls were all issues that had divided the community, but "were never going to happen."
In the same way he said, gas drilling is unlikely to happen in Pocahontas County because the shale is not as gas-rich as it is in other areas of the state. Also, he said, the infrastructure to move the gas out of the county is not in place.
Saffer tried to distill the issue into a universal one.
"We are all concerned with water; we are all concerned with quality of life," he said. "I don't think it's fruitful at this point to get into a head-to-head discussion."
Drilling might not happen here for 50 years, Saffer said, and by that time "our water will be more valuable than gas."
He said the ordinance was "just an idea," and the commission should discern the reality of the problem, the appropriate measure and the reasonable reaction.
Last of the commissioners to speak, Jamie Walker kindled the sentiments of the business owners and opened a floodgate of anti-ordinance sentiments from the public.
"It's obvious you know how to run this county," Walker said to the crowd, noting that it is a "hard place to make a living.
"When I read this it upsets me to think we would even think about adopting an ordinance like this."
About two-thirds of the crowd spoke during the lengthy commission meeting, Most of them about the threat to property rights, existing regulations on business and the inability of future county stakeholders to create a business with such an ordinance in place.
From people who had been in business here for 50 years-Ralph Beckwith-to one of the newest business owners in the Marlinton area-Doug Lantz-all said the draft ordinance was inappropriate and too overreaching for Pocahontas County.
And farmers, a group rarely heard from on county issues, said they were against zoning and water usage restrictions. Even those who hadn't yet leased their mineral rights were against the draft because it would affect their land use.
"We have a small farm at Edray. We haven't leased our mineral rights because we feel we sacrifice our surface rights," said Liz Gay. "This ordinance infringes on our surface rights. It's too broad and it's too much."
Commissioners also heard from 8 Rivers Council president Cyla Allison whose group has gathered more than 700 signatures against drilling in Marcellus shale.
"We don't even like it," she said. "I could hardly disagree with a word that's been said, even though my organization was the cause of it being written."
If Allison did not agree with the proposed draft ordinance, she spoke to the audience about those with opposing views.
"They want to preserve clean water and clean air," she said. "They work here. They live here. They have just as much a claim to these things as you do."
She was one of the few defenders of the commission's direction.
"Don't blame them. They're trying to figure it out," Allison said. "We have to listen and don't call each other names. All of you are running your businesses with more regulations than the gas industry."
Assessor Dolan Irvine said groups that have been fighting against Marcellus shale drilling were using "scare tactics," since West Virginia University geologist Tim Carr said last week that hydrofracturing wells has not been known to cause groundwater contamination in West Virginia.
"If it's done correctly [it] presents no danger to water," Irvine said.
Irvine, who also runs a farming operation, said he is opposed to the ordinance because the federal and state governments have enough regulations.
"This is a very dysfunctional place," said Gil Willis of Slaty Fork. "We're always fighting. A lot of people won't be here in 20 years. I don't think this document is a good document, either. But if it gets people talking it's a good thing.
"Thirty years ago you could lure somebody in here," said Willis. "But the first thing people are going to do now is search the Internet."
And that, according to Willis, means that anybody who wants to open a business here will likely find someplace else to go because residents can't come to a consensus on any topic from building a sewage treatment plant in Slaty Fork to the lengthy remediation process at East Fork Industrial Park.
Willis also brought up issues he believes are more pressing to Pocahontas County residents than drilling for gas in Marcellus shale.
"Where are you when we talk about drug abuse? Where are you when we talk about broadband issues?" Willis asked. Those issues, he said, are affecting local businesses now.
Fleming summed up the evening, noting that he is not anti-business or anti-property rights. He did say that industry does not have the right to "come in and run over us."
"This is a community rights issue. We're all a landowner beside another landowner," he said.
Since several business owners had spoken about the state of the economy overall and how that is hurting their businesses, Fleming reminded them that the commission was not the cause of a national downturn.
"I'm as upset about that as every one of you," he said. "[But] one cannot be pro-jobs at all costs; one cannot be anti-business at all costs. We have the opportunity to have a say for ourselves, to allow businesses to flourish. That chance is not to be missed."
"We need your thoughts, we need to do all we can to maintain our quality of life and our business," he added.
In other business, commissioners:
ﾕsent the names of three people interested in serving on the Pocahontas Memorial Hospital board to the PMH board. Three people, Donna Hedrick, Jay Miller and Freda Jackson, sent letters of interest to the commission. Anyone interested in the seat may still contact the commission.
ﾕreceived only one letter of interest for the Pocahontas County Building Commission, that of Harvey Galford.
ﾕdiscussed redistricting the county's magisterial districts and renumbering the voting precincts.
ﾕtook no action on the possible sale of scrap metal from East Fork Industrial Park.
The commission meets again in regular session December 6 at 8:30 a.m.