Rochester approves zoning on oil and gas drilling, lifts moratorium

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published April 21, 2015

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ROCHESTER — After nearly a year of research, discussion and deliberation, the city of Rochester has approved a zoning ordinance that allows for oil and gas drilling in certain areas of the city.

Rochester City Manager Jaymes Vettraino said the city started following the issue last July, after West Bay Exploration Co. drilled an exploratory oil well near 25 Mile and Dequindre roads in Shelby Township — about 1,000 feet from the municipal border and a residential district of Rochester. In August, West Bay voluntarily discontinued its operation in the township in the wake of residents’ objections.

“It really brought attention to City Council and some residents that if you don’t actively manage how these uses come into your community, you are kind of behind the eight ball once they arrive,” he said.

On April 11, the Rochester City Council unanimously passed regulations for oil and gas well drilling in the city. Prior to the approval, Vettraino said, the city did not have oil and gas well drilling regulations in its zoning code.

“One of the risks, when you don’t have something in your zoning code as a specific use or a specific area, is then there are questions — can it go anywhere, can it go nowhere? In the state of Michigan, you have to provide for all uses in all places somewhere in your community, with very few exceptions, so this ordinance attempts to put it in our code so that we don’t have questions if we ever do get an application for a well drilling in the city boundaries. It’s important to note that we do not have one of those applications right now, but we could have one,” Vettraino said.

The city ordinance requires oil and gas well drilling to occur within industrial zones in the city’s southern end — certain areas along South Street, for example. Drilling operations must be at least 1,000 feet — and horizontal drilling lines must be at least 500 feet — from residential properties, schools, hospitals and religious institutions.

“It can be in a few places in our industrial zone, which we think is really the right call. That’s where either horizontal or vertical drilling can take place in the city,” Vettraino said. “It’s pretty much along the southern border of the city. South Street is the street that cuts the most through our industrial zone there.”

The city requires prospective drillers to file an application noting the potential location of work prior to beginning a project, to submit a variety of reports and studies regarding the environmental impact of a project, and to provide written notice to any residents within 2,000 feet of the boundary of a prospective drilling site. The ordinance also prohibits injection wells and hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking” — a process in which fractures in rocks below the Earth’s surface are opened and widened by injecting chemicals and liquids at high pressure to extract natural gas or oil. Environmentalists link fracking to the contamination of groundwater and risks to air quality.

Mayor Jeffrey Cuthbertson said the ordinance does not encourage, but rather regulates, oil and gas well exploration above and below ground.

“It is required for us to do this to provide some location where it may be theoretically possible to undertake in the city of Rochester, under state law. This ordinance seeks to impose reasonable and stringent regulations as it relates to potential siting of those state-mandated, theoretically available locations. We do so to make sure that we are representing the public interest correctly,” he said.

For more information, contact the city of Rochester at (248) 651-9061.

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