Drilling permit moratorium passes

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City won’t approve new requests while review continues

The Denton City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to impose a moratorium on new gas drilling and production permits, giving the city some breathing room to finish an ongoing ordinance overhaul.

The moratorium will last for 120 days, although the council could extend it if necessary. During that time, city staff members are supposed to complete their review of current drilling regulations and offer recommended changes. IN OTHER ACTION

Also Tuesday, the Denton City Council:• Heard a report on proposed updates to the city's four-stage drought plan. A vote was scheduled for Feb. 21, but city staff members were still studying when to enact Stage 1 of the revised plan in light of recent rains. Residents and businesses could water lawns and landscapes no more than twice a week under Stage 1 of the revised plan. Currently, most restrictions are voluntary until Stage 3. The city is revising the plan to more closely match one in Dallas, where a mandatory outdoor watering schedule took effect in December. Dallas asked Denton to impose its own conservation measures, citing a 1985 wholesale water contract between the cities. Dallas' Stage 1 restrictions were set to expire today, but the Dallas City Council is meeting to consider extending the restrictions through June 8.• Approved annual agreements with Denton County to provide ambulance and fire protection services within designated areas. The county is expected to pay $125,167 for ambulance services, a 4.4 percent increase from the last fiscal year, and an estimated $23,500 for fire protection services, a 4 percent increase, according to city staff reports. n Approved a $145,776 construction contract with Wylie-based JDC Construction Co. for pedestrian trails and sidewalk improvements at Quakertown Park. The project includes 8-foot sidewalks along Bell, Withers and Oakland streets and interior trails connecting the Denton Senior Center, Civic Center Pool, Denton Woman's Club Building and Emily Fowler Central Library, according to a city staff report. The 90-day project was expected to begin in late February. A mix of Community Development Block Grant and local capital improvement funds are paying for the project.• Awarded a four-year, $2 million contract to Houston-based ABC Professional Tree Inc. to trim trees near Denton Municipal Electric power lines.

-Lowell Brown

A task force is meeting weekly to review new regulations, and staff members have said they hope to get a draft ordinance to the council in March.

The moratorium applies to new oil and gas well permits as well as applications for specific-use permits, site plans, development plans and plats that relate to mineral production. The moratorium does not apply to applications already on file with the city or to wells associated with previously approved permits or development plans, among other exceptions.

Dalton Gregory, the first council member to publicly call for a moratorium, defended the exceptions to the crowd inside City Hall.

"A moratorium that froze everything in the pipeline would have just delayed some inevitable activity, because there are some approvals that are vested under our current regulations and the new rules wouldn't have any effect on them," Gregory said.

Gas industry representatives opposed the moratorium.

Gilbert Horton, representing Devon Energy, said Denton's regulations were already "extensive and comprehensive." A moratorium is unnecessary and could threaten Devon's development plans, he said.

Multiple Denton residents spoke or submitted written comments in favor of the moratorium. Marcio DaSilva, a University of North Texas student, urged the council not to be swayed by out-of-town industry representatives.

"We in Denton are opposed to drilling in our city," he said. "These are our elected officials and they answer to us and not their checks."

The ordinance passed Tuesday includes a variance process for property owners who believe a moratorium causes a "unique and undue hardship" on their property or business. However, variance requests would face a public hearing and require a majority council vote.

A moratorium was a top priority of many residents and a key recommendation in a report by the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, another task force advising the city. Other North Texas cities, including Flower Mound, Bartonville and Dish, have passed moratoriums to prevent drilling companies from getting permits before stricter regulations took effect.

Denton council members had been reluctant to discuss the issue until Jan. 10, when they faced two drilling-related permit requests and decided to delay them, mostly because of the pending ordinance review.

Four council members called for a moratorium at the end of that meeting, paving the way for Tuesday's action. The council met behind closed doors with attorneys to discuss the moratorium Jan. 31 and held another closed session before the vote.

A last-minute change to the moratorium ordinance also exempted applications for permits relating to wells drilled "in conjunction with the injection or storage of natural gas as personal property," as long as no hydraulic fracturing is involved. The exemption benefits Atmos Energy Corp., which has a pending permit request for a gas storage well in eastern Denton.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is lmbrown@dentonrc.com .

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