Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Arlington considers tigher rules for gas-drilling

ARLINGTON -- With natural-gas drilling on the rise, the Planning and Zoning Commission will look at higher road-damage fees, tighter time limits and other measures to buffer the industry's impact on the city.

The commission meets in a 4 p.m. work session today at City Hall, 101 W. Abram St., to consider what would be the third major revision of the 2003 gas well ordinance.

The commission plans to vote next week on final recommendations to the City Council.

"This is one of the main drilling hubs in the Barnett Shale," Mayor Robert Cluck said.

"There is more urban drilling now. We're closer to structures -- homes, churches -- than we ever have been."

The city has received 210 permit applications since 2006, when its first seven wells were drilled. The city so far has approved permits for 163 wells, of which about 130 have been drilled, said Darren Groth, Arlington's gas well inspector. The increase in drilling points to the need for further strengthening of the ordinance, he said.

Suggested changes include:

Charging more to cover most costs for road damage caused by heavy trucks of drilling and pipeline companies. The city used to charge about $200 per well but has gradually increased that to $480. That's still far short of the minimum $5,000 charged by the city of Mansfield, Groth said.

Limiting the time that companies can drill at a site after receiving a specific-use permit. Currently, they have up to one year to drill the first well but no limits on drilling subsequent wells.

Notifying more people when gas-drilling companies apply for permits. For a specific-use permit, the city mails notices to people living within 200 feet of the site. But in the next stage -- the drilling permit application, in which remaining details are addressed before the council -- notices are mailed to residents within 600 feet.

That means a lot more people are hearing about the project after the drilling basically has been approved. However, Cluck said that's not too late to voice concerns to the council, which can deny a drilling permit even if it meets city requirements.

In written statements to city staff, several energy companies voiced concerns about some recommendations. For example, they said limiting the time for drilling subsequent wells on the same site -- an effort to speed up drilling -- could have the opposite effect if a company misses a deadline and has to go back through the permitting process.

Councilwoman Sheri Capehart said she got an earful of gas-drilling concerns at a town hall meeting she hosted last week.

Many residents said the city needs to do more to monitor compliance with landscaping, trucking hours, noise limits and other stipulations in drilling permits. They noted that the city has only one gas well inspector.

Others suggested increasing the percentage of property owners who must sign waivers before a company can drill within 600 feet of residences. They also want fines for well-related violations raised beyond the standard $2,000 for most ordinance infractions.

"I just want us to do this right," Capehart said. "I'm not anti-gas wells, because I think a lot of people benefit. But I want us to do it appropriately and with a vision of what this means to our future."

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