Give Michigan townships a say in oil and gas drilling

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

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Thu, 01/15/2015 - 9:54am
Ms. Green is right - this issue needs another look. As an example of the kinds of problems that exist - I looked at a house recently that was on a large lot composed of three parcels. The parcel on which the house was situated was in the City of Ann Arbor, but the additional two parcels were in Ann Arbor township, and these two parcels ran basically down to the Huron River, and practically abutted Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. In theory, given a willing property owner and an interested oil company, an oil well could be sunk in this heavily populated area that is a major recreation resource and environmentally sensitive. Clearly, some allowance for population density, proximity to parkland, lakes, rivers, streams, recreational areas, etc. needs to be added to this law to give townships some discretion. As written, while "protecting" the property rights of some owners (and the financial interests of oil companies), the law risks significantly degrading those of many, many others, and causing townships major problems encouraging non-extractive development in their jurisdictions.
Anne B.
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 1:23pm
I absolutely agree with Ms. Green. I live in a township and we are facing the same issues. We need the same protections as a city and it is unreasonable that this has not yet happened.
John Simaz
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 6:28pm
A possible solution would be for all those who want to deny the mineral rights owners their legal right to develop their resources to pay the developers and landowners the projected value of those rights. We hear from all those who don't want this industry to operate near them, while they use the gas and oil every day. Some how this fact seems overlooked and marginalized. Just stop using gas and oil, thats all you need to do and the problem goes away.
mike t
Mon, 01/19/2015 - 11:36am
I agree. Property owners should be compensated for loss of revenue with mineral right denial. The extraction industry should be taxed to pay such a fee. The industry should also be charged for the permanent loss of clean water used in extraction as well as the road abuse caused by the increased truck traffic. These items are measurable, quantifiable and can be charged through to the ultimate consumer through higher prices. In this way we will be paying our bills "ON TIME" instead of pushing the ultimate cost onto our descendants.
Property OWNER
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 2:47pm
This article blows traffic, noise, ect way out of proportion! There are more problems if you build a school in your neighborhood than an oil well! It all boils down to a property owners rights to lease the minerals on his property. The people who object to this should be forced to pay the property owner for lost revinue due to the inability to lease what is theirs! This all comes down to NIMBY, (not in my back yard!) An oil well always stinks unless you get money from it!
John Q.
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 9:39pm
How about you paying your neighbors for devaluing their properties? Property rights works in both ways.
Fri, 01/16/2015 - 2:28pm
I am confused here, the author bemoans the patch work of regulations, and wants a unified set of rules/laws regarding extraction from the state (second to the last paragraph), and this all after titling this piece "Give townships a say in oil and gas drilling". Which is it? Maybe cities and villages shouldn't be allowed to set rules? What is it that you really want? Or maybe really no petro extraction at all?
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 3:20pm
This author and the local group that supports this view, COFBY (Citizens for Oil Free Backyards) are trying to carve out special protections only for suburban residential areas. But in their view, it's okay to frack and drill in our farmlands. Think about the illogic of this mindset. I have news for Scio township residents: Michiganders reside all over the state. Relegating this same obnoxious, toxic industrialized gas and oil complex to people living in rural areas, or to our foodsheds and watersheds, is short-sighted and wrong-headed. The author also seems to be tone deaf to what is needed in the face of climate change and increased and continued fossil fuel use. What is needed is a statewide ban on fracking and frack wastes. There is a large movement of people across the state, people who realize that the problem is much bigger than protecting one's literal backyard. It's the unspeakable, horrific damage this industry is doing to climate change, to air, water and to our health. A township by township, city by city approach to preventing damage to public health will not result in a healthy population. Instead it sets up divides between communities like Scio who think they somehow deserve better health and higher property values than other Michiganders, and communities in the "agricultural" areas that will bear the brunt of the damage to health, quality of life, water supplies, etc etc done by the massive infrastructure teh fracking/natural gas industry wants to build across the state. Scio won't be able to escape the impacts. So I encourage people to think broadly across the whole state, the whole Great Lakes region, the whole country, the whole planet--that we need to stop this frack industry from expanding and taking over more and more of our air, our water, our land, and damaging our health in the process. See and #banfracking #fracking