After nearly three years of debate and controversy, the Board of County Commissioners finally approved on Feb. 12 a revised set of zoning regulations to guide future oil and gas development activity in the county.
After commissioners voted 2-0 in favor of the changes at their regular meeting, many in the standing-room-only audience applauded.
Commissioner Larry Ross did not attend the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours. County attorney Alex Beltz reported that Ross had called the morning of the meeting and said he was ill and on his way to the hospital.
At the meeting, Community and Development Services Director Kyle Fenner presented 17 recommendations from the planning commission for minor revisions to the final document, which the BOCC adopted as amendments to Section 27 of Elbert County's zoning regulations.
“Staff has worked very hard on this,” Fenner told commissioners.
The revised regulations will dramatically shorten the approval process for issuing oil and gas permits, which, Fenner said, is currently taking “six months to almost a year.”
Fenner said the revised regulations prohibit open pits at development sites and so-called “produced” water (which has already been used once by the development companies) from being sprayed on county roads.
“Most importantly,” she added, the new regulations “protect the county's water.”
Air-quality issues were not addressed in the new regulations, Fenner said, because revised state-mandated air-quality guidelines will soon be adopted by the state and those guidelines will apply to all future oil and gas development activity across Colorado.
During the meeting, the BOCC also approved a related Memorandum of Understanding — or MOU — that will serve as an additional tool for the county to hold oil and gas developers to specific standards — and, in some cases, to expedite the approvals process.
Commissioner Robert Rowland called the MOU “a stand-alone contractual document and not a zoning regulation.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, more than a dozen people spoke, most in support of the new regulations. A number of people in the audience wore fluorescent green stickers reading: “I support responsible energy development.”
Mark Smith, a 20-year county resident who operates a small dairy farm, said, “Our land and water are extremely important to us. But technology for oil and gas development is amazing and has proven to be very safe so we are solidly behind oil and gas development. We think this is going to be very beneficial for Elbert County.”
Agate resident Rick Blotter disagreed and implored the BOCC not to pass the new regulations, citing concerns over “water problems, air problems, respiratory problems, increased crime, the list goes on and on,” Blotter warned.
“I understand the county needs money,” Blotter added. “And some people are going to take their royalty checks and move to Phoenix…My intentions are to protect our health, safety and property values.”
But unlike previous BOCC meetings that turned contentious when the subject of oil and gas development was on the agenda, at the Feb. 12 meeting, the atmosphere was considerably less charged.
Even Grant Thayer, the former planning commission chair who resigned in July 2012 when the BOCC failed to pass a set of revised regulations he helped author, spoke in favor of the proposed new regulations.
“They're not perfect but they are certainly good enough,” Thayer told commissioners. The new regs, he added, will provide “an opportunity for the county infrastructure to improve, our children to have jobs and the county to grow.”
Charlie Carnahan, who owns the oldest and largest ranch in Elbert County, also spoke in support of the revised regulations, which he called “sufficient to take care of the land and the environment.”
County resident Tom Conley was even more direct in his comment to commissioners. “We need to move on and get some `Drill baby, drill' going on in this county,” he said.
Bob Davis, who operates an energy development company, told commissioners that with the new regulations in place, he plans to file for two permits. “We hope to bring jobs and economic development to Elbert County and will work hard to build and maintain trust,” he said.
Representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates oil and gas development in the state, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry's lobby group, also endorsed the newly adopted regulations.
“We're at an important moment in Elbert County's history,” said Rowland.
BOCC Chair Kurt Schlegel concurred.
“I've never made it a secret. I support energy development,” Schlegel said. “It's not government's job to be a burden on the citizens of this country. If somebody is lucky enough to have oil or gas on their property, they should be free to capitalize on it.”
Fenner said she now expects her department will “see a number of new applications come into the office” and, in fact, immediately after the Feb. 12 meeting, representatives from several oil and gas companies lined up to speak to her.