Fearing Lawsuits, Virginia County Opts for Zoning Ordinance Over Fracking Ban

Taylorsville_BasinBy Cathy Dyson, The Free Lance-Star

The King George Board of Supervisors stopped short of prohibiting fracking—because such a ban might lead to lawsuits—but plans to put strict zoning regulations in place that probably will keep gas and oil drilling out of the county.

Supervisor Dale Sisson Jr. said “none of us really support” drilling, but said the county couldn’t ban the process outright.

Doing that might make it “the test case for legal action,” said Supervisor Ruby Brabo. There are differing opinions among state, local and environmental officials as to whether localities have the authority to prohibit hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals deep into the ground to loosen trapped natural gas or oil.

But all seem to agree that counties can control these kinds of actions through zoning ordinances—and put such strict regulations in place that would make it impossible or impractical for companies to drill there.

“I say we take the more proactive approach with special exceptions,” said Supervisor Joe Grzeika. “That way you’re on solid legal ground. Let somebody else spend their money on legal fees.”

In September, the supervisors asked the Planning Commission to review current ordinances related to oil and gas drilling.

Their request came after a Texas company leased 84,000 acres in King George and four other counties for possible drilling of natural gas.

Companies interested in drilling first would have to apply for permits with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. As of Tuesday, no applications had been made in what’s known as the Taylorsville basin, according to the state agency.

Also, there have been discussions, but no action taken by any other counties in the basin.

Members of King George’s Planning Commission reviewed county ordinances and came up with three options: Prohibit fracking; allow exploratory wells but not production wells; and permit fracking through the special exception permit process, but include strict regulations.

Jack Green, the county’s director of community development, said the special-exception process was the most feasible choice. However, planners unanimously supported a prohibition of drilling, saying it “poses risks to the county’s rural character and environment that would outweigh any potential benefit.” Those potential risks include polluting water, noise and visual disruption, additional traffic and damage to roads.

The planners presented their findings as part of a preliminary review. They expected to hear the supervisors’ response Tuesday, go back and make whatever changes were needed and present a final report in June.

Supervisor Chairman Jim Howard said it wasn’t necessary to spend five more months reviewing and writing. He suggested the board control fracking through special-exception permits and view the planners’ recommendations as the final report.

All the supervisors agreed except Brabo, who voted against the motion. She wanted to give the Planning Commission “the courtesy of a meeting for review and discussion before it comes back to us.”

Sisson countered that the board was saying the Planning Commission had done a great job with its recommendations and already had answered all their questions.

The supervisors instructed Green and his staff to draw up the proposed special-exception permit for oil and gas drilling within 90 days. It will include additional standards, such as: a detailed site layout; a narrative that describes impacts to neighbors; emergency preparedness plan; survey of all groundwater wells in the vicinity of drilling; environmental data after drilling; and consider lights, noise, disposal of waste, hours of operation and transportation of resources.

Green also will update language in the Comprehensive Plan that says the same thing as the county’s drilling ordinance.

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