Gas Drilling Task Force Begins Deliberations, Opts to Stick with Current Approval Process

The city council-appointed gas drilling task force stopped listening to The Experts yesterday and got down to the business of discussing just what it'll suggest the council do about the business of fracking. And for its first recommendation, the task force decided ... the city should keep on doing what it's doing, at least when it comes to the initial approval process.

Right now, whenever a would-be gas driller comes to the city with its eye on a specific location, it has go get a specific use permit, which requires a public hearing and, like all SUPs, must be approved by city council. Once approved, the company must undergo a permitting process during which city staff checks that they've met technical standards. "That's a very typical process within the city structure," task force chair and former council member Lois Finkelman told the group. It's used for everything from bars (and bowling alleys) to other industrial land uses.

Some neighboring cities, including Southlake and Mansfield, handle the permitting process similarly, while others, including Grand Prairie, Fort Worth and Flower Mound, have only a permitting process and don't require the SUP.

Task force member and former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher had concerns over the uniformity of the process, since city council's considerations -- along with citizen input -- can change the requirements on a case-to-case basis. "This can become very political," she said.

To which Theresa O'Donnell, director of Sustainable Development and Construction, responded: "The beauty of the SUP, in my opinion, is it's a public hearing."

Finkelman added, "My gut instinct tells me that when [the task force's recommendations reach] city council, they will build in an SUP process. ... It generally works to the advantage of the community."

"This will sound more cynical than it is," said task force member David Biegler, "but there's no such thing as politics aside in anything .... And the reality is, in my opinion, anything that's this emotionally charged needs a public voice. ... I think the most prudent thing is to stick with the standard process."

"A variance has to be explained," Keliher added. She said it's standard procedure for the city, and any changes in requirements must be justified. The group unanimously agreed to stick with the city's blanket prescription concerning process; the requirements for approval, however, were addressed yesterday and will be further debated in coming meetings.

At the outset of yesterday's meeting, Finkelman proposed that the group proceed through the issues they agree on and move items that require further discussion to the next scheduled meetings, which means that hot-button issues such as setback distances from drill sites to residences and other protected uses will come up at a later date. The task force has till November 29 to wrap up its chitchat, though there's a chance it could extend into December if need be.

In forming its recommendations, the task force is using a comparative document of other Northeast Texas cities' ordinances that was compiled by city staff. In order not to reinvent the wheel and to use the experiences of cities that have already been fracked, the group is cherry-picking, adding to and deleting from ordinances that already exist. The task force also laid out an ongoing list of other items to be included in their recommendations to council. On the coming weeks' to-do list: Spell out requirements for site plans, waste management plans, proper reporting and noise limits.

A group of citizen activists, who proposed their own recommendations, told Unfair Park they were disappointed that the city didn't use the highly restrictive suggestions they submitted in comparison with the ordinances they referenced. Claudia Meyer said she'd like to see the citizens' document used in the process "as a legitimate reference."

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Leslie Minora