Cities and villages, no matter what their size, may exercise full zoning power over drilling, but townships of any size cannot. What’s the rationale? Why are townships singled out for lesser treatment?
Who would have guessed that we would see an oil-drilling rig in suburban Scio Township?
In the fall of 2013, we began hearing reports of a so-called “land man” making door-to-door calls on behalf of West Bay Exploration, asking Scio residents to lease their mineral rights. Last July, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) granted West Bay a permit to drill an exploratory well. In late August, West Bay reported that the well was dry, and the MDEQ has not issued any additional permits – at least for now.
Nonetheless, many of our residents feared a proliferation of unsightly production wells within a stone’s throw of their backyards, with attendant odors, fumes, 24-hour floodlights, property values in jeopardy, and heavy truck traffic on already crumbling county and local roads. Some residents feared a contaminated water supply and a dramatically diminished quality of life
Like other Michigan townships, we initially assumed that we could do nothing to address our residents’ concerns ‒ Michigan law limits the extent to which townships can regulate or control the drilling of oil and gas wells through their zoning ordinances, or can issue permits for oil and gas wells.
But after much deliberation, we settled on a measured and balanced approach that would protect our residents without harming the extraction industry. We imposed a six-month moratorium on drilling, we are reviewing and revising our ordinances to cover this unanticipated land use, and we are working with legislators to create policies in Lansing that will protect suburban communities without harming the oil and gas industry.
Let’s face it ‒ as long as we drive gas-powered vehicles, oil will be a necessary commodity. Residents should understand that banning oil drilling is not an available option, and that the best we can do is to use our constitutional authority to ameliorate certain conditions caused by drilling. At the same time, the extraction industry should not expect to drill anywhere they choose without some local regulation, and the legislature should trust townships to fulfill their obligation to exercise reasonable controls.
Restore township zoning authority
Presumably, the rationale behind the legislature’s restriction of township authority is that townships could “ban” oil and gas drilling through their zoning ordinances. But it is unlikely that a township could use its zoning power to ban drilling. It is extremely difficult for a township to ban or exclude any land use without meeting strict standards under the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act.
With restoration of full zoning power, townships could designate appropriate zoning districts for oil and gas development – for example agricultural districts as opposed to a residential districts – just a they do for nearly every other land use. Restored zoning authority would allow for site plan and special-use criteria that could minimize the incompatibility of drilling with surrounding land uses. No township would be required to exercise any zoning authority at all over oil and gas drilling.
Michigan townships know what they’re doing when it comes to land-use decisions, and ample legal remedies are available in the event of overreach. It’s time to restore and preserve for all townships the basic powers granted to cities and villages with respect to oil and gas drilling.
Protecting a community
The residential tumult boils down to this: People do not want to live next door to an eyesore that keeps them awake at night, emits noxious odors during the day, and disturbs the tranquil neighborhoods they expect in Scio and other suburban townships.
Those of us in township government have a responsibility to ensure quality of life for our residents. They look to us to protect their ability to enjoy their property without excessive noise, fumes, odors, lighting and other nuisances . The legislature left intact township power to prevent and abate nuisances, and townships should continue to enforce those ordinances against drillers.
Although the MDEQ is better qualified to oversee the technical aspects of well drilling and oil production, local units of government are uniquely qualified to determine what constitutes a nuisance in their neighborhoods.
A reasonable solution to the concerns raised by drilling in residential areas should include the restoration of township zoning authority and the preservation of existing township power to prevent nuisance.
Michigan needs a policy on oil and gas drilling that is fair and rational – not the current patchwork of policies. Cities and villages, no matter what their size, may exercise full zoning power over drilling, but townships of any size cannot. What’s the rationale? Why are townships singled out for lesser treatment?
The Legislature should treat townships equally, at least insofar as their ability to regulate land use and prevent nuisance. The legislature has shown from bills introduced late in 2014 that it is willing to tackle the problem of drilling in residential areas. We hope the legislature will call on the MDEQ to work on a statewide policy for legislative review that protects suburban communities without harming the oil and gas industry.
Christine Green is a trustee in Scio Township, located in Washtenaw County