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Southlake group wants regulations that are friendlier to natural gas drillers

SOUTHLAKE -- The city's gas drilling ordinance is under attack again from residents who want regulations that are more industry-friendly.

A group named Southlake Citizens for Property Rights is circulating a petition calling for a new ordinance that would make it easier for drillers to win approval. The group wants to entice gas companies back to the city, said Stephen Oren, chairman of the petition drive.

The group has until May 29 to collect 3,348 signatures to push the initiative to the City Council. The council could either adopt the proposed ordinance or, more likely, put the item on the November ballot.

Oren called the city's current ordinance "absolutely absurd," saying its fees and restrictions -- including a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the summer -- effectively prohibit drilling.

"They treated it as something that they don't really want in the community and that's opposed to the majority of people here who want to sell the minerals, not to mention the tax revenue it would generate," he said.

Last year, XTO Energy and Chesapeake Energy announced that they were no longer interested in drilling in Southlake. XTO's decision came after one of its drilling requests was denied and the other was challenged with a lawsuit.

Chesapeake officials said the city's new ordinance was behind its decision.

The affidavit requesting the petition is signed by Oren, Keith Houser, Timothy Haitz, Robert Gray and Zena Rucker, who owns a large tract near Southlake Town Square that was permitted to be a drill site.

Drilling critic Gordon Aalund, who joined others in suing the city last year over a drill site, said it would be "reckless" to allow mineral-rights owners with ties to gas drilling to rewrite an ordinance using what he described as inferior and out-of-date codes from 2008.

The council gathered public comment and used what it learned from the city's first two drilling applications to write the regulations approved in November, he said.

"They had a year to develop the ordinance, and it was approved unanimously," Aalund said.

Referring to the people circulating the petition, he said, "You don't get to write the rules. That's crazy."

He also questioned why anyone would sign the petition without reading the 80-page drilling ordinance.

The proposed ordinance would make the road easier for drilling companies by eliminating the requirement of a supermajority council vote for an application denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission. That was an issue when XTO Energy wanted to drill up to 18 wells on the Milner Ranch on Highland Street.

The proposed ordinance adds all the stipulations that XTO and the council agreed on for the Milner application, such as air and water monitoring and other safety features.

The group also proposes making drill site property owners exempt from the city's buffer requirements that prohibit drilling within 1,000 feet of a home. That was another issue that came up during the Milner controversy.

"If I'm going to lease my property as a drill site, obviously I've already taken that into consideration if I live on that property, like the Milners," Oren said. "Why should it be a consideration? I've already worked that out with the driller. I don't need the city in the middle of my business."

The proposal would also automatically grant variances if an energy company has obtained signed waivers from the affected property owners.

Aalund counters that gas companies could use money to influence neighbors around a drill site to circumvent city regulations.

Nicholas Sakelaris,

817-431-2231

Twitter: @reporternick1

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