June 30, 2014 - 16:10
Posted: Saturday, June 28, 2014 11:22 pm | Updated: 11:25 pm, Sat Jun 28, 2014.
ALLIE ROBINSON GIBSON | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
ABINGDON, Va. — An ordinance governing drilling for natural gas in Washington County will now be heard by the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The draft ordinance had been in the hands of the Washington County Planning Commission and its committees and last week was pushed up to the Board of Supervisors by Planning Commission members. The Planning Commission did not vote to approve or not approve the ordinance, but passed the draft up the chain of command.
That puts pressure on groups seeking to prevent gas drilling — and hydraulic fracturing — from taking place in the county, and those who want to bring the industry into the county.
“For four years, Virginia Organizing and directly affected community leaders have been working to make sure that property owners and residents of Washington County would be protected from the harmful effects of natural gas drilling,” said Sandra A. Cook, chairwoman of Virginia Organizing, a group that has been helping organize the local effort against gas drilling, in a written statement.
She called the commission’s decision rushed, and said the move raises questions, including why the commission didn’t wait for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to complete its revisions on energy regulations.
Beth Stockner, public relations manager for the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, members of which have spoken in support of local drilling, said that members of the organization have gotten the latest copy of the proposed ordinance and are reviewing it.
The county has been in talks about natural gas drilling for years, but for the past year has been kicking around a draft of an ordinance that would permit drilling and fracking in the county. The draft outlines a specific area to be drilled — in the western part of the county between the Scott County line, the North Fork of the Holston River and Pine Hill Road — and states that drilling will be by special exception permit.
Natural gas has been drilled in the county before, but no operations have been successful in the past few decades.
Supporters of gas drilling say it’s an easy way for landowners and the county to make money on natural resources already here, plus get in on the current boom natural gas is having in the national market.
Opponents say they don’t want drilling on their land out of concerns for what fracking might do to the water locally, and because they are worried what might happen when a corporation owns the rights to the land under their feet instead of them.
County Attorney Lucy Phillips said that since the ordinance has been passed to the Board of Supervisors — without comment or approval from the Planning Commission — the next step is for board members to review the ordinance.
Planning Commission Vice Chairman Bill Canter initially voted to delay passing the ordinance. He said last week that he feels the ordinance is 95 percent complete, but not entirely ready.
He said several people have come to recent commission meetings to voice their opinions on drilling.
“Most of the citizens know what’s going on, what it’s about,” he said of the ordinance. “We want to make sure the citizens are protected.”
County Administrator Jason Berry said a first reading of the ordinance will likely be on the agenda for the next Board of Supervisors meeting scheduled for July 8.
Phillips said the board could do a few things after the ordinance’s first reading. The board could ask for specific changes or send it back to the Planning Commission for more work, she said. They could also not make any changes and send it back to the Planning Commission to review in the context of zoning and make a recommendation to approve or not approve the ordinance.
The earliest that would happen — the draft would again be in the hands of Planning Commission members — would be at the commission’s meeting at the end of August, she said. Then the commission would hold a public hearing on the ordinance, make a recommendation one way or the other, and pass the draft ordinance back up to the Board of Supervisors. The board would have to hold a public hearing on the ordinance — possibly in September — before any action could be taken.
“That’s the fastest they could pass it,” Phillips said after outlining the process.
The ordinance could be effective immediately after the Board of Supervisors’ public hearing and vote, she said, if it is approved. The Board of Supervisors would not necessarily have to hold a second reading on the ordinance.
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