Amidst Activist Outbursts, Task Force Finalizes Its Suggestions for Gas Drilling in City Limits

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A few major issues, including set-back distances from drill sites and whether to protect parks from fracking, have plagued the Dallas gas drilling task force for months ... and months. (Keep in mind: Yesterday's final meeting was more than three months past the scheduled end date.) At meeting after meeting after meeting, the group debated and decided on most issues, but set aside yesterday to revisit the topics at which they wanted to take another stab.

They essentially rewound what they had done, took into account the maps from the city of locations currently zoned for drilling and information that's been filling their in-boxes from industry and citizen activists, and came to new conclusions based on the materials and the benefit of hindsight.

Drilling on park land, a source of ongoing debate, came to a head. It had to, considering it was the last chance for task force discussion and vote. As detailed in letters to the task force by industry representative Dallas Cothrum, protecting park land -- along with other task force recommendations -- would make it impossible to drill on sites already negotiated by the city.

The task force had previously voted to include parks as a protected use, guarded by a 1,000-foot set-back. Park land encompasses much more land than parks as we know them, said David Biegler, task force member and Southcross Energy chairman and CEO. With that, he urged that the group allow the Park and Recreation Department and city council to decide on the issue on a case-by-case basis with strict guidelines.

Park Board president and task force member, Joan Walne, mostly agreed with Biegler. "Just so I'm perfectly clear; I've never advocated for drilling on park land," she said, indirectly responding to criticisms from citizen activists saying she was not doing enough as board president to protect the parks. "What I do advocate is a governance issue ... and I think the council should be given the opportunity to evaluate with stringent guidelines and in only instances that seem appropriate."

A few task force members worried this would leave too much latitude in the decision-making process, but others continued looking to Walne, who said she believed council and the Park Board could handle the issue as long as it was restricted from commonly used parks, environmentally sensitive areas and if part of the revenue went back to the city's Park and Recreation Department department for mitigation and improvement.

"Mic check," someone in the audience interrupted. Activists looked around, clearly enthused.

An older man and a younger woman stood solemnly and began reading a script: "The Dallas gas drilling task force has complied with industry desires and ignores the voices of the people. ... Polluting water and air fills corporate coffers and poisons people in the name of greed."

Task force chair Lois Finkelman called upon security to escort them out. The task force then filed out of the room, appearing to protest the protesters.

"I'm fragile," the older man said as security guards held onto him under the armpits and whisked him from the room. Asked his name as he walked to the elevator, he said, "George Nolan's the name; 71's the game." Referring, of course, to his age.

Moments after he left, the task force voted to allow drilling in public parks if strict conditions are met and council approves the location. A city lawyer added that by virtue of being park land, the location must go through an additional city hearing to be used for drilling or other purposes; the process itself is cumbersome and somewhat prohibitive.

Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk loudly objected from the crowd, yelling that the task force had changed their minds to be less protective. Finkelman again summoned security, then told them to act quickly. "Democracy is going to speak sooner or later, Lois," Schermbeck yelled as he was politely and firmly shoved towards the door.

If this is what it's like now, imagine what it will be like when these recommendations come before council. Bring popcorn.

After the second interruption was quelled, the task force immediately returned to discussion. Set-backs were up next. Biegler began the conversation raising his concerns including that by having set-backs from the pad site to the property line of a protected use, the set-back distance to the actual protected use could be potentially enormous, depending on the size of the property.

Terry Welch, a lawyer for several North Texas cities, agreed that the set-backs aren't scientifically calculated, but disagreed that they should be measured in a way that makes them less restrictive. "There is no magic line, and I think we all agree on that. Reasonable minds can disagree," he said. "Err on the side of protecting residences ... and if history shows us in the next couple years that we overshot this mark, let's go ahead and change it [then]."

As they had decided previously, the group did vote in favor of measuring set-back distances from the edge of the pad site to the site of the protected use. Then they voted to measure the distance to schools and other zoning categories using the property line instead of the building site, complicating the matter with different rules within similar zoning categories. Finkelman said it best: "Somehow I think we've just made sausage, but it remains to be seen."

Now, the whole package of recommendations will be organized by city staff and sent to council. That will likely be followed by a briefing, after which the recommendations will move to the council yea-ing and nay-ing the task force's decisions.

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