Changes in zoning regulations to prevent the siting of natural gas well-heads in the Deep Creek Lake watershed were recommended this week by a county planning board.
The measure now goes to county commissioners, all of whom campaigned in 2014 on pro-gas development platforms. Before approval, they must first hold a public hearing; no date has been set.
Garrett County Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh, an ex-officio member of the planning commission, was active in weeks' of discussion about the proposed change with lake stake-holders, including the lake-area Property Owners’ Association. He indicated at Wednesday’s hearing that county commissioners look favorably upon the recommendation.
Hinebaugh added, however, that commissioners are not inclined to act until after the much-anticipated overhaul of state gas-drilling regulations is announced later this year. “We want to see the new regs first.”
Among the six on the zoning board, only one — Jeff Messenger — dissented. He said afterward that he knew many in the county supported gas development, and he predicted a scrappy debate was still to come.
The move came after 11 citizens, including several DCL business owners, petitioned the planning body in March to change “language of the zoning ordinance to bring it into compliance” with provisions of a new Deep Creek Lake Watershed Management Plan recently negotiated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and county government. That plan, though only advisory, calls for no well-heads in the DCL watershed, the area in central and southern Garrett County drained by the Youghiogheny River and all tributaries upstream of the dam.
If approved, the zoning change would not prevent shale gas development (“fracking”) county-wide. Landowners within the watershed could still lease their properties for gas development, and fracking “laterals” from vertical well-bores could still enter the watershed from outside its boundaries. Recent industry announcements suggest distances approaching 10,000 feet are technically feasible.
At the hearing, several people including Planning Commission Chairman Tony Doerr suggested that limited zoning tweaks might not prevent adverse impacts. These include water and air contamination, as well as health consequences that have led to hundreds of lawsuits in more than a dozen states since the fracking boom began in the eastern US in 2004. If fracking comes, Doerr noted, there would still be “industrialization" of rural areas and “lots of trucks.”
The ban is only on well-heads in areas surrounding the lake, and it was clear at Wednesday’s hearing that the POA was the main organization representing those interests. POA President Bob Hoffman, for instance, had recommended changes that attempt to restrict “associated development” (particularly pipelines and compressor stations) near the highest-valued homes in the county. Those changes were approved in the final language.
James Stanton, president of Youghiogheny Watershed Association, urged county officials to also pursue more comprehensive protections. Engage Mountain Maryland appealed to supporters to seek adoption of the ordinance. The organization also advocated for regulatory-based controls on fracking in the 2016 Maryland General Assembly. Eric Robison, an EMM co-founder, stated at Wednesday’s meeting that he had served on a planning commission subcommittee.
The state currently has a legislated moratorium against fracking that is set to expire on Oct. 1, 2017.