by Richard A. Lacey and Irving Wesley Hall
On February 5th, our Oxford Village Board voted 4 to 1 – a super-majority – to pass an amendment to its zoning laws, prohibiting industrial activities within the village.
That fourth “yes!” vote meant that Oxford Village has banned fracking – a decision that under New York State’s Constitutional principle of Home Rule cannot be overturned. Oxford Village celebrated its historic decision to become the first municipality in Chenango County to create a No Frack zone.
Unfortunately gas industry operatives who read the Norwich Evening Sun saw no cause to celebrate.
Settled in 1789 by American Revolution veterans, rural Oxford village and town straddles the Chenango River and boasts idyllic lakes, streams, and farmland. The current village population is 1584; the town 3992. Village residents elect their own government; village and town voters jointly choose the Town Board.
The February vote triggered an unexpected chain reaction that pits the pro-gas Town Board against the anti-gas Village. Legally, there’s little room for compromise.
This conflict has significance for Chenango County, New York State, the future of gas drilling, and the fate of the planet.
It all began last summer, when Village Mayor Terry Stark and Town Supervisor Lawrence Wilcox organized Vision Plan workshops that engaged the community in visualizing Oxford‘s future and planning for decades. Faculty and graduate students from SUNY in Syracuse facilitated the Vision Planning Project. That name inspired some participants to call ourselves The Oxford Visionaries.
The mayor’s and supervisor‘s goal was a new Comprehensive Plan for the town and village because the last joint plan was created in 1970. The collective energy flowed freely into the meetings and hearings of the Village Board, Village Planning Board and even the Town Planning Board…but not Supervisor Wilcox‘s Town Board.
The other three boards tried to implement the Vision Plan. They welcomed the community to their meetings, set goals, maintained order, stayed on task, listened critically to all sides, did their homework, discussed options, and took action responsibly.
Wilcox’s approach to public meetings is grudgingly to grant six citizens five minutes each per meeting. Usually all five board members spend the next half hour staring silently like glum school boys.
Future battle lines were drawn early but remained hidden until the village vote.
In late summer, fracking opponents mailed everyone in the village and town a copy of the Flowback newspaper, reliable information about troubling issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing. The Visionaries and their supporters collected 350 letters for Mayor Stark recommending a moratorium, and submitted more than 1000 signatures opposed to hydraulic fracturing to the Town Board.
Under Mayor Stark’s leadership, the village’s courageous and patient quest for truth helped its Planning Board propose a nine-month moratorium to enable the village to revise its zoning regulations and preserve the traditional, rural and healthful character beloved by the overwhelming majority of its residents.
Then lightning struck our village!
At the final December 11th village Board hearing, a landowner from the town blocked the moratorium effort and threatened to sue the Board – and each individual member – if it approved the moratorium. The board unanimously tabled the moratorium.
Nevertheless, the Village Board refused to give up. In another fascinating turn, Mayor Stark reviewed its regulations with Community Environmental Defense Council attorney David Slottje – leading to the February 5th 4 to 1 vote to approve a measure prohibiting any industrial activity not currently permitted within its boundaries.
But our sigh of relief was premature.
Disregarding the super-majority vote, the pro-gas Chenango County Planning Board rejected the proposed amendment, provoking the present conflict between Mayor Stark’s Village Board and Supervisor Wilcox’s Town Board. The county reminded us that New York State law requires both village and town to reconcile the village’s new 2013 anti-gas law and the town’s 2007 pro-gas law. Both must be in accord with a new joint Comprehensive Plan.
The Oxford Vision Plan returns! But the stakes have risen dramatically. Chenango County has been working closely with gas industry lobbyists for years, and Town Supervisor Wilcox has a gas lease with bankrupt Norse Energy. He is also the Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors! The county pro-gas advocates expect Wilcox‘s pro-gas position to win over the Village‘s new law, but the community – especially the thousand anti-fracking signatories – has other ideas. Another powerful force – young people – has yet to enter the fray. They were conspicuously absent from last year‘s Vision workshops planning their future. Stay tuned, for the Oxford Visionaries aim to bring their voices into the conversation!
(Follow updates of this story on OxfordVisionaries.org.)