Updating zoning regulations that will guide future oil and gas exploration in Elbert County is proving to be a major challenge for new community and development services director Kyle Fenner.
On the job less than four months, Fenner stirred up a hornet's nest Sept. 17 after calling off a meeting of the county's so-called citizen “editing” committee, which had been helping officials craft updated regulations for future oil and gas exploration in a county that is still relatively untapped for fossil fuels.
The editing committee, made up of eight county residents, had been scheduled to meet the evening of Sept. 17. Fenner showed up at the county courthouse a little after 6 p.m. to make sure people were told that the meeting was not going to take place. She says she was met by “a number of angry people waiting outside” who accused her of canceling the meeting at the last minute — and without explanation.
At the regular Board of County Commissioners meeting on Sept. 25, Fenner asked commissioners whether a scheduled Sept. 26 meeting of the editing committee should still take place.
“I have been trying to follow the direction of the board and respect the historic process in Elbert County while also trying to adhere to Colorado state statute,” Fenner told commissioners. “I would ask that I have a sheriff's deputy there if the (Sept. 26) meeting occurs. My gut tells me that it's going to be uncomfortable and I'll be outnumbered.”
“I am being pulled in a number of directions,” Fenner added, not trying to mask her obvious frustration. “I will speak my mind and stand up for things I believe in. One of the things I will not do is stick my neck out only to have it chopped off.”
`Process does not exist'
Board Chair Robert Rowland told Fenner “the editing committee was (formed) by your predecessor (Richard Miller). In terms of there being a formal recognized process that (gives that group) the ability to change planning commission documents, that process does not exist.”
Commissioner Larry Ross, who is the most cautious of the three commissioners in terms of embracing full-scale oil and gas exploration in the county, added: “I regret that there was confusion at the end of the last planning commission meeting over the issue of the editing committee.”
In the end, while attempting to stay at arm's length from the actual drafting process, commissioners encouraged Fenner and her three-person department to work with the planning commission to draft the new oil and gas zoning regulations and then bring them back for board approval.
The Sept. 26 editing-committee meeting took place at the county courthouse, with Fenner, a sheriff's deputy and about 40 citizens in attendance.
Concerns about water
Although many around the county welcome oil and gas exploration on their land — and will profit handsomely if it's successful — there are concerns that drilling, if not regulated properly, could be a serious threat to the county's most precious resource — water.
Even Commissioner Kurt Schlegel said: “I live off a well and I'm concerned about my water as well.”
But at the Sept. 25 BOCC meeting, commissioners made it crystal clear that the editing committee was not sanctioned by the board and would have no formal role going forward in drafting the new zoning regulations.
“There is no editing committee,” said Schlegel.
The back-and-forth at the BOCC meeting caps a nearly three-year effort to update the county's zoning regulations as they pertain to oil and gas exploration.
Earlier this year, in a 2-1 vote on July 10, commissioners rejected an amendment to current land use regulations that sought to better define the county's application process for issuing oil and gas exploration permits.
Rowland and Schlegel voted against the amendment, arguing that the way it was written put the county at risk of not only being in conflict with state oil and gas regulations, but also of complicating the county's ability to sit down and negotiate with potential producers.
“I did not, truly, reach my decision on the matter until less than 24 hours before the vote,” Rowland said this past July. “The bottom line was that we have to protect the county from issues associated with oil and gas exploration, but at the same time be open to embracing the benefits that come with it.”
Frustration with officials
Agate resident Rick Blotter told commissioners during the public comment portion of their Sept. 25 meeting: “This all seems backwards to me. It seems to me that you all have your own agendas. The editing committee has gone through a long process. Why don't you (commissioners) just tell us what you want? Obviously what we've done so far isn't right and we are going to go through this whole process again. It's a waste of time and it's pointless.”
Saying that oil and gas exploration will impact the county's water, schools, law enforcement, roads and housing, Blotter implored commissioners to “think ahead about what the potential impacts are going to be. Let's plan. Please gentlemen, take care of our public safety and health.”
Fenner admits her first few months on the job have been “anything but easy.” Nonetheless, following the Sept. 25 BOCC meeting, she said she still believes the county is close to adopting new oil and gas regulations.
“All the work that has been done up to now is certainly not going to be thrown out,” said Fenner, an Elizabeth resident who moved to the area several years ago from Teller County, where she was also involved in community development.
Hired on May 28 of this year to replace both former planning director Richard Miller and former economic development director Craig Curl, Fenner had been managing the Colorado Horse Park Metropolitan District south of Parker before coming to work for the county.
At the Sept. 25 commissioners' meeting, Fenner said that even if the editing committee's efforts no longer had official BOCC approval, she was planning to go forward with the next day's meeting “out of respect for the work they have done up to now.”
“If a group of citizens who still identify themselves as an editing committee choose to have a meeting, that's great. But there is no official editing committee,” Schlegel repeated. “Let's stop using that term. … According to state statute, the way zoning regulations are amended is (county) staff develops a recommendation and that recommendation is presented to the planning commission. That's the process.”
Fenner thanked Schlegel for the clarification. “Oil and gas producers already have to go through a special use permit process to get formal approval to drill in Elbert County,” she said. “They can't just come out here and start poking holes in the ground.”
Thanking Fenner for her hard work — and persistence — Rowland added: “What we are doing now is taking the opportunity to get it right.”