Landowners and gas and oil producers held their breath June 26, awaiting a vote from the Elbert County commissioners amending the county’s zoning regulations for oil and gas exploration.
The decision is perhaps one of the most important issues to come before the county in decades. But when the daylong meeting ended with a vote to continue discussions, many stakeholders discovered the devil was, indeed, in the details.
“In my opinion, this document is simply not ready,” said District 2 Commissioner Kurt Schlegel.
Quarrels over grammar, syntax and whether or not a memorandum of understanding should be “coupled” with the new zoning regulations raised hackles and left many feeling there was some sort of underlying agenda.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Ross tried twice to clarify that the land use amendment and the memorandum of understanding that would be offered to gas and oil producers were not one and the same.
“These are two separate documents,” said Ross. “One is a regulation that covers land usage and the other is a contract.”
Memorandums of agreement, or MOUs, are often cited in land use regulations, noted Ross, but they have no place beyond that.
In this case, land use regulations would govern the use of county land by gas and oil producers. By statute, they must complement, but not exceed, laws set forth by the state. Producers must apply for and be granted a permit before any drilling or exploratory operations may begin — a process that can take months.
However, many counties and municipalities offer MOUs as part of a voluntary administrative process to speed the permitting process along. Those producers that opt not to agree to county requirements in the MOU would be require to complete the standard permitting process for gas and oil development.
According to Carolyn Parkinson of the Elbert County Community Development Services Department, the county can’t force producers to agree to more stringent practices such as increased setbacks and restrictions on water usage, but it can dangle the element of time as a carrot.
In short, the MOU is essentially a trade-off between the county and the producer, exchanging agreement to a county wish list for expedited permitting.
“What we are dealing with here, today, is land use only,” explained Ross.
But residents, even some who helped craft the documents, insist the regulation and the MOU should be “coupled.”
“The only reason this county got consensus on this issue was the fact the two (documents) were coupled,” said Tony Carrado. “We can’t restrict the oil companies by the regulation alone. Decoupling it from the MOU makes the regulation meaningless and opens Pandora’s box.”
“Oil and gas are inevitable here in Elbert County,” said District 1 Commissioner Robert Rowland. “And we’ve come too close to screw this up now — we’ve got to get this right.”
A unanimous vote by the board continued the meeting until July 10 and directed staff to collect syntax and grammatical changes for review at that time.