Photo and Story by Rick Hiduk
Betty Booth of Nicholson Township was one of several citizens at a public hearing held at the courthouse in Tunkhannock on Tuesday who encouraged the Wyoming County Commissioners to take a more proactive approach with gas-related issues as the county faces a dramatic increase in drilling and infrastructure changes.
A public hearing was conducted by the Wyoming County Commissioners on Jan. 28 to discuss an ordinance amending the county’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO). Unanimously approved by the commissioners, the ordinance increases the set-back distance for natural gas compressor stations from 300 to 750 feet.
Determining how far away from an existing structure a compressor station can be built is one of many tasks faced by the Wyoming County Planning Commission. The SALDO is under scrutiny right now as the county planners modify it to reflect changes in technology and operations associated with the natural gas industry. The ordinance was last updated in the mid 1980s.
Commissioner and Chairman Tom Henry acknowledged the abundance of public sentiment toward gas-related issues, but opened the meeting by stating that visitors remarks were to be limited to the specific issue of set-backs for compressor stations.
“There are lots of other ideas,” County Solicitor James Davis said of the Planning Commissions agenda and other potential amendments, “but this is the only one the commissioners are going to approve today.”
Betty Booth of Nicholson Township was the first of several in attendance who got up to speak and immediately sidestep the ground rules that Henry had laid down. She petitioned the commissioners to take questions about other types of structures, particularly gas-generated power stations, but Henry and fellow Commissioner Ron Williams politely declined.
“You are doing the right thing, and I applaud you for that,” Booth said in reference to the sole ordinance on the table. She suggested, however, that Lycoming County is much farther ahead with gas-related land-use ordinances. Wyoming County might benefit from taking a closer look at what they have accomplished, she noted.
“We all want to work with the gas industry, but we want a safe place to live in,” Booth offered.
The commissioners took interest in what Booth had to say and agreed that making contact with officials in Lycoming County would be a good idea.
Davis invited Booth to attend the next Planning Commission meeting, which is open to the public and held in the Wyoming County Emergency Operations Center on the third Wednesday of each month at 7 pm.
Others in attendance at the meeting exemplified a growing frustration among residents in gas-rich areas who feel that they are under-informed about the related issues. At hearings such as these, the feelings tend to pour out.
“We don’t know what’s coming down the road with generation stations,” said Judy Petras of Tunkhannock Township. “I wish we could be more proactive.”
Petras suggested using Act 13 money (aka – impact fees) to hire someone to work with the county planners to move the SALDO project along. “Let’s get someone who already knows this stuff,” she advised the commissioners. “There’s no sense in us spending money to find out as we go.”
“This situation is bigger than what we think it is,” said Richard Ide. “Apparently, we are sitting on a treasure trove.”
Ide is one of few owners of large tracts of land who refused to sign a lease with a gas company, but he cannot escape impact from companies who want to run pipelines or from speculators who are already poking holes in an attempt to extract gas from the Utica shale.
He wants to know more about the intentions of Southwestern Energy in the area, so he attended a public meeting conducted by DEP at Tunkhannock High School on Jan. 27 hoping to obtain a better understanding of what is happening around him and what his rights are. Surface Rights were the primary topic of the hearing, and Ide was not impressed by what he heard. He left shaking his head.
“I left in a quandary. The meeting left me even more confused” he stated. “We are overpowered by the gas companies. The gas companies are too damned powerful.”
The general consensus among those who spoke at the hearing suggested that the public wants to see a more concerted effort by county officials or to be better informed of what the county planners are up against and how they are handling it.
“We’re not clear if things should be taken to the Planning Commission or the commissioners,” said Petras, who asked that the commissioners “not do this piecemeal.”
“I wish we could do more,” Henry said after the meeting in reference to not being able to respond more directly to concerns about other gas-related issues, “But overall it was a good meeting.”