PONDER - Both the developer and residents of the Remington Park subdivision say town staff should not have issued drilling permits for a new gas well site without Town Council approval.
But the town's new mayor says the staff acted properly and followed the applicable ordinance.
Town records show that Devon Energy applied May 3 to drill two wells inside town limits. The town secretary issued the permits May 16. Residents said they had no idea what would happen to the site, previously set aside for homes and a town park, until the energy company's bulldozers showed up.
Mayor Scott McCarty said he has been on the fast track, trying to get educated on the issue since being elected May 15. Some town property is in the acreage pooled for the well, he said, but the town's royalty earnings are expected to be nominal.
The concerns of Remington Park residents came through loud and clear during the council's regular meeting June 9, McCarty said. About 40 people from the neighborhood, which is home to about 300 of the town's 1,395 residents, came to protest Devon's new well site.
They were upset that the town's decade-old ordinance was weak enough to permit well sites 300 feet from homes - too close for the neighborhood's health, safety and welfare, they said. They were also upset that town officials were not responding to their complaints and concerns.
Remington Park resident Veronica Kronvall wrote a letter of protest on behalf of the neighborhood prior to the June 9 meeting.
The letter went unanswered, she said.
"We know the ordinance should have been tougher," McCarty said, adding that he studied what happened and believes nothing illegal occurred. "We've gone over it [the permit process] quite a few times, and we felt like every step was followed."
Town officials are working hard to change that for the future, he said. They've met with residents. And today, he and council member Alan Gorman will meet with the town attorney to discuss where the town's ordinance needs to be strengthened.
"We should have something to bring back to the council to discuss," McCarty said. "We're trying our best to move forward."
But they also are concerned about their liability in the current situation, in light of pressure from the neighborhood to repeal the permits. Devon could sue if they repeal the permits now, McCarty said.
"They've got well over $100,000 in that site," he said.
Company officials believe the permits are valid, according to spokeswoman Alesha Leemaster. They did not request any variances and met all requirements of the ordinance, which meant the staff could approve the application to drill, she said.
When Brett Bingham, the Remington Park developer, bought the land in 2003, it came without the mineral rights.
Back then, he said, investors approached their land deals thinking that no more land would be needed for drilling because the land was already leased and wells were already drilled. Operators were drilling vertical wells in the Barnett Shale. Most existing gas wells in the Ponder area weren't inside town limits.
At the time, he said, he thought they had a good plan to build homes in Remington Park.
Only the first phase was built before the housing crash, but plans for the rest of the 80-acre development were on file with the city in a 2005 development agreement with Ponder.
"Now it's a totally different ballgame," Bingham said of horizontal drilling.
Devon has about 7,000 sites identified, but yet to be drilled, in the Barnett Shale region, although the company doesn't track those numbers specific to a county or city, Leemaster said.
When Devon approached him about plans for a new pad site - with up to four horizontal wells - in Remington Park, Bingham scrambled. He sent the company's initial offer, which was below the market value of the land, to his attorney, he said.
The attorney, Jim Bradbury of Fort Worth, tried to tell town officials, first informally and later in writing, that Bingham's development agreement for Remington Park vested his interest in the plat and, by ordinance, the Town Council needed to approve or disapprove the permit, not the staff.
No public meeting ever took place.
Bradbury said he experienced the same lack of communication that residents complained of at the June 9 meeting. He called town officials a few times and left messages, but no one returned his calls - something that had never happened to him before, he said.
"But a little while later, I'd get a call back from Devon," Bradbury said, adding that one of those calls included a company representative telling him that the company didn't consider the development agreement a final plat for Remington Park, so no public meeting needed to take place.
"We try hard to be a good neighbor," Leemaster said. "Addressing questions is important, and when they come up, we'll respond to them."
Bradbury told Bingham, his client, that the communication pattern did not bode well. In addition, Ponder didn't even have the kind of ordinance that protects platted land that is undeveloped.
The final agreement for surface use cost Bingham and Remington Park at least 20 lots, the payment for which doesn't cover either present or future value, Bingham said. He's hopeful the pipeline plan will use rights of way where city streets are proposed, and thus preserve the rest of the development plan, he said.
"I'm holding off on new engineering drawings for now," Bingham said.
This week, resident Kronvall submitted a formal appeal on behalf of the people who live there, asking that the permits be revoked under a section of the ordinance that provides a remedy when town procedures aren't followed.
Kronvall received a response to her formal appeal from Ponder on Wednesday, reiterating that nothing in the town's ordinance prevented the staff from issuing a drilling permit as they did.
She said she thinks residents will turn out again for the next council meeting, whether the drilling permits are back on the agenda or not. While some neighbors are helping, she worries that others are depending on her to make it all go away.
"I'm just an average person, like them," Kronvall said. "If I knew the magic to fix it, I would have done that weeks ago and we wouldn't be going through all this."
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .