Denton pulls suit, weighs options

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David Minton/DRC
Crews fracture an EagleRidge Operating natural gas well recently at a site across Bonnie Brae Street from the University of North Texas’ Apogee Stadium.

City revisits fire code, withdraws petition against EagleRidge

Less than a week after filing suit against EagleRidge Energy, the city of Denton withdrew its petition to shut down some of the company’s operations near the intersection of Bonnie Brae Street and Vintage Boulevard.

The move came not long after the City Council met in a closed-door session with attorneys last Tuesday. Officials have said little since filing the motion of non-suit, which does allow the city to sue EagleRidge again. However, the agenda for another special meeting of the City Council this Tuesday hints at what the problem may have been.

The city is poised to amend its fire code so that drillers must obtain that permit with the gas well inspection division and not the fire department.

Court documents showed that EagleRidge sought, and received, a permit showing compliance with the International Fire Code from the Denton Fire Department immediately prior to drilling new wells near Bonnie Brae and Vintage. The company also sought permits from the Texas Railroad Commission. But the company did not seek other permits required by the city, nor did it make an application for vested rights, which triggered the city’s move to enforce its ordinance.

The city first issued a cease and desist order. When the company kept drilling, the city asked the court for a temporary restraining order, telling the court its ultimate goal was a permanent injunction to shut down the new wells because they were closer than 1,200 feet to homes.

But District Judge L. Dee Shipman denied the temporary restraining order.

City Hall offered only a prepared statement summarizing the week’s chain of events, saying that they continue to pursue all options available to the city.

Mark Grawe, EagleRidge Energy’s executive vice president, did not return a call for comment.

In an interview this week, City Council member Dalton Gregory said that the city’s new rules, which took years to draft, weren’t accomplishing what the council hoped they would accomplish.

“We need to take another stab at trying to rewrite our rules to improve our legal position,” Gregory said.

Municipal litigation expert Mick McKamie, a San Antonio attorney, said that questions over vested rights are not new, and cities can do a lot to define a “new project” with rules that are enforceable.

Developers have challenged a city’s definition of a new project, but those legal battles tend to be fact-intensive, McKamie said.

Still, residents along Bonnie Brae Street who thought relief was in sight are upset.

Paula Collins lives in an older neighborhood sandwiched between the site where EagleRidge is currently completing wells north of her home, near the University of North Texas’ Apogee Stadium, and the new wells being drilled south of her home.

She didn’t complain at first because she’s afraid to be labeled a troublemaker, she said.

“And I didn’t think anything would be done about it,” she said.

But after a while, the smoke and noise really bothered her, even though her house isn’t as close to either site as other people’s homes, or even to the university students living and practicing in the athletic village.

“I’ve been upset about it for a long, long time,” Collins said. “I decided to let everyone know I’m upset and began calling and e-mailing this week.”

Sandy Mattox said she and her neighbors are watching the hydraulic fracturing by Apogee closely, knowing that the trucks and equipment will be moving toward them in a few weeks now that the lawsuit has been dropped.

People with health problems, pregnant women, families with small children and anyone else who wants to, should be able to make arrangements to leave their home and stay elsewhere while the fracking is going on, Mattox said. She didn’t think one day’s notice would be enough to make that work.

“We need at least a week’s notice,” Mattox said. “This affects people’s lives and health. They need enough notice to make plans.”

Dave Miller, who moved into the neighborhood near Mattox about three-and-a-half years ago, said he can’t understand why city officials have been so tight-lipped about the matter.

“No one at the city would answer much of anything directly at the community meeting,” Miller said of a gathering with neighbors and officials about two weeks ago. He was troubled that some answers seemed to suggest it was the residents’ responsibility to complain to the company about problems, even if those problems were violating city rules.

Council member Kevin Roden acknowledged on his blog that the situation for residents along Bonnie Brae was “awful.” Miller said he and other residents had seen the posting and were a little surprised by the rare public acknowledgment.

Denton officials have been circumspect about commenting on the impact of drilling in neighborhoods, especially when compared to the outspokenness of elected officials in other affected areas, from nearby Dish to Colorado and Pennsylvania, too.

Roden said he has made similar comments privately to friends and says he doubts that anyone else on the City Council would disagree with his assessment.

“I don’t think I stand alone in recognizing that sort of activity is incompatible with neighborhoods,” Roden said. “I think our ordinance can help with that awfulness and we can get to a place to be able to defend our ordinance.”

The council meeting will begin with a closed session at 4 p.m. Tuesday, but the vote on the ordinance change will be held in open session at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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