Gas drilling protests disrupt PandZ meeting

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Protesters disrupted a Denton Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday night after commissioners endorsed a permit for a natural gas well site that operated without a city permit for years.

The meeting dissolved into chaos moments after commissioners voted 5-2 for Dallas-based Eagleridge Operating's request for a specific-use permit allowing gas drilling and production across the street from the University of North Texas' Apogee Stadium.

A group of Occupy Denton protesters rose from their seats and, through a call-and-response pattern, shouted a statement opposing the permit and demanding that the city shut down two gas wells operating at the site.

"We refuse to stand by while the air we breathe and the water we drink is poisoned by fracking," they said. "We demand that the city regulations are observed and that violators are denied the right to operate in this city."

The outburst ended when a police officer escorted the lead protester from City Hall's council chambers and others walked out chanting "Shame!" By then, chairman Jay Thomas had adjourned the meeting with an item left on the agenda.

Outside, protesters said they would take the fight to the City Council, which has the final say on the permit. They also accused city planning director Mark Cunningham of misrepresenting the issue as a zoning case, even though the permit would let the operator refracture existing wells with city staff approval.

"He essentially just swayed a number of commissioners to vote in favor of it by lying to them about what it's about," Ben Kessler said.

Eagleridge is seeking a specific-use permit for a 2.6-acre site on South Bonnie Brae Street containing two gas wells and a tank battery. The wells were drilled without city permits years before Eagleridge acquired one of them in May 2009.

Cunningham said the specific-use permit was essentially a zoning permit because it allowed a particular land use. Eagleridge would have to get separate permits to drill new wells, he said.

Cunningham and Deputy City Attorney Aaron Leal tried to focus the debate on land use after opponents raised a variety of issues during a public hearing, including the risks of hydraulic fracturing and a pending illegal dumping case against an Eagleridge production foreman.

Many speakers wanted the city to fine Eagleridge for operating the site without a city permit, but Leal said the commission lacked the power to fine anyone.

What's more, further research showed that a prior operator approached the city to permit the site in 2004 but was mistakenly told no permit was needed because UNT owned the land, Cunningham said. The university never owned the property.

"They were basically following the instructions they were given," he said.

Cunningham, who was hired in 2007, could not explain how the mistake was made.

Dallas-based Enexco Inc. obtained state permits to drill the wells in 2004, and the wells' ownership changed hands several times, according to records filed with the Texas Railroad Commission.

County appraisal district records show Rayzor Investments Ltd. owns the land where the surface drilling occurred, although one well used lateral drilling technology to reach gas under UNT property to the east.

Eagleridge started seeking a city permit in December 2009 after learning UNT did not own the well site, said Lee Allison of Allison Engineering Group Inc., who is representing Eagleridge.

City staff members recommended approval of the permit with several conditions, including the addition of an 8-foot-tall screening fence and perimeter landscaping.

Commissioners Thom Reece, Jean Schaake, Frank Conner, Brian Bentley and Thomas voted for the permit. Patrice Lyke and Devin Taylor opposed it.

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


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