Longmont’s rules are legal and make good common sense.
For example, last year the governor sued the city of Longmont, where I was city manager for 19 years, for adopting local oil and gas rules to protect its citizens. While I appreciate Gov. Hickenlooper’s characterization of the lawsuit as “a last resort,” I want to explain why Longmont’s rules are legal and make good common sense.
Longmont didn’t take the task of adopting new oil and gas rules lightly. The City Council acted because state rules under the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) were insufficient to protect our community. The council carefully crafted an ordinance that would safeguard the health and welfare of Longmont citizens and promote industry accountability and responsibility. Working with its most active oil and gas company, the city negotiated an operator agreement that went beyond COGCC requirements. Notably, while the governor sued Longmont for its new rules, the local oil and gas operator did not.
The new regulations prevent oil and gas development within residential neighborhoods, and require drilling to be a reasonable distance from occupied structures to better protect residents from noxious fumes, chemical spills, and dangerous and noisy truck traffic. Separating industrial uses from homes, schools, and nursing homes is part of the fundamental zoning role that local governments play.
When Longmont passed its rules, COGCC regulations allowed new oil and gas wells to be as close as 350 feet from homes in high-occupancy residential areas and 150 feet from homes in rural areas. Those “setbacks” applied whether there was one well or 22 planned for a site. Longmont residents were concerned about the health of children and seniors and the livability of their neighborhoods. The City Council increased the setbacks to 750 feet from homes and allowed for comprehensive review of multiwell sites to ensure they are located appropriately with respect to traffic and adjacent land uses. In response, Gov. Hickenlooper sued Longmont, stating the ordinance was “preempted” by the state.
COGCC rules require that toxic chemicals used in fracking be disclosed to the state 60 days after the operation has been completed. Since most accidents happen when chemicals are being transported or during the fracking process, the Council opted to increase safety for residents and emergency responders by requiring that chemicals be disclosed prior to trucking them through our neighborhoods and pumping them underground. The COGCC is suing for this, too.
The COGCC is also suing Longmont for trying to prevent facilities within the city limits from being an eyesore — such as requiring that tanks be painted and well heads be screened by landscaping. Why is the state threatened by this? The city of Greeley has had a similar requirement in its land use code for years.
The governor accuses Longmont’s use of its zoning authority as a “taking” of private property. Yet, reasonable zoning restrictions — such as those to protect public health — have never been considered a taking by the courts. That is probably why the state is not suing Longmont for a “takings” — even though that is the governor’s rationale.
Applying local zoning to oil and gas development is common. Just look to the birthplaces of the industry: Texas allows municipalities to set their own setback rules; Pennsylvania allows local governments to apply their zoning authority to oil and gas development; and Oklahoma allows its municipalities to ban oil and gas development within their borders. Yet, these states aren’t suffering from an “uneven patchwork of regulations.”
Zoning industrial land uses inside the city is within Longmont’s authority as a home rule city. From mining operations to marijuana dispensaries, barber shops to breweries, local governments have the authority and responsibility to regulate land use to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare. Oil and gas development should be no different.
The oil and gas industry is booming in Colorado. Responsible development of the industry is appropriate. However, responsible does not mean steamrolling the citizens of Longmont. Longmont’s future should be dictated by the needs of its community, not the desires of the industry or the governor. One thing we all agree with the governor on: “Our ultimate responsibility is to protect people.”
I hope the governor will rethink his approach and work with local officials to ensure Longmont remains a great place to live.
Gordon L. Pedrow is a former city manager of Longmont.