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Potsdam Board: Local Governments Should Make Hydrofracking Decisions

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By MATTHEW BULTMAN

POTSDAM - A controversial natural gas extraction technique has become small government's newest platform to rally against the state.

Two downstate towns are in the midst of a legal battle that could shape the future of the extraction process known as hydrofracking and add another chapter to the state-vs.-local government power struggle.

The towns of Dryden and Middlefield argue that local leaders should have the final say on when or where the gas extraction happens, not officials in Albany. And the Potsdam Town Council agrees.

Last week the board approved, with Councilwoman Judith R. Rich abstaining, to support local control of hydrofracking, a mining process in which chemical water is injected into the ground to fracture rock and release natural gas.

The vote was not an endorsement of the controversial mining technique, the Town Board said, but rather a support of local governments.

"At least this way we could decide what happens in our own township," Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said.

Both Dryden, which sits just east of Ithaca, and Middlefield, near Cooperstown, have banned oil and gas exploration within town borders.

And both local laws are being challenged in court by energy companies who have spent millions of dollars leasing and developing land in those towns.

The companies say a state law which assigns regulatory authority over such activities to the state Department of Environmental Conservation trumps any local ordinance.

Officials in Dryden and Middlefield disagree, saying that, while the state controls industry regulations, each town has a right to establish zoning laws.

The two towns have sent a joint resolution to local governments around the state asking for support, not of the ban but of each municipality making its own decision.

In Potsdam, leaders debated a small government's ability to rule on such issues. Ms. Rich said some communities may be swayed by the promise of millions of dollars, tempted to turn over control of their land for what she called an environmentally damaging practice.

"Money can be very tempting especially in small rural communities," Ms. Rich said. "And I just wonder about it."

Councilman Michael J. Zagrobelny countered by saying that taking away home rule from locally elected bodies has become an ugly trend at the state capitol. Towns should be allowed to make that decision themselves, he argued.

"I think we pay a lot closer to attention to what's going on in our backyard than folks in Albany," Mr. Zagrobelny said.

Ms. Regan agreed.

"The state could say this could bring in a lot of money and we won't be able to say a thing about it," she said. "I would like us to be in control of it."

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