The Southlake City Council Hall, once packed from floor to gallery with residents for whom gas drilling in town was either a looming menace or a windfall, had only a smattering of attendees a little after 11 last night. Many had already wearied of the debate, which had raged since February and driven a schism through the small town, named the most affluent in the country by Forbes in 2008.
Those still left were the hardliners -- concerned parents turned activists, and mineral rights holders who stood to gain, so long as the council's new ordinance wasn't too strict.
They shouldn't have worried too much, because what was passed wasn't all that different from a 2008 drilling ordinance, with a few notable exceptions. The 1,000-foot setback from homes wasn't tweaked, which could have posed the biggest obstacle to drilling within city limits. The council worried about creating setbacks so large they amounted to a "regulatory taking," or regulations so stringent they effectively prevent mineral rights holders from developing the resources beneath them.
"The difference between a 1,500-foot setback and a 1,000-foot setback can be quite significant," city attorney Allen Taylor cautioned the council. Lawsuits, he warned, can and have happened.
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The new ordinance does, however, create a 500-foot setback from the well bore to public parks, and a 300-foot setback from things that could potentially explode, like gas stations. Perhaps most significantly, it prohibits hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," during June, July and August because of the vast quantities of water it requires.
Before the council approved the proposed changes to the ordinance, no one on either side seemed particularly happy. "I think the ordinance, as its currently written, is going to kill drilling in Southlake," said Steve Oren.
On the other side, in approving a 300-foot instead of 500-foot setback from ignition sources, Cyndi Day accused council member Martin Schelling of softening regulations for an old boss, who owns property once slated for drilling with a battery of fuel tanks nearby.
But Southlake, a tony enclave with a state title-winning 5A football team, opted for the middle road: an ordinance not as weak as some, but certainly not as stringent as some of its neighbors, such as Flower Mound.