The Planning and Zoning Commission is about to approve a plat (a proposed development plan) that seems to put gas wells less than 250 feet from homes. The link I provide here is to the plat, but it was not on P&Z’s back-up material for their meeting on Wednesday (by the way, 5:30 p.m. – be there if you can). I got a hot tip from a little bird and had to request this.
I don’t think this project is in accord with the gas well drilling and production ordinance that we just spent so much time rewriting. What is going on? Here is my take.
The debate about Denton’s gas well ordinance was almost entirely framed as: Wells à Homes. That is, what should set-backs be for gas wells that come into an area with pre-existing protected uses such as houses, schools, and hospitals?
But DAG warned early on that most of the new drilling activity is likely to be about Homes à Wells. That is, lots of gas wells are going to be sunk in areas (such as master planned communities like Robson Ranch) where the homes have yet to be built. In our first report, we recommended: “10.1 There should be no variances for pre-existing or pre-planned wells. All home sites and other protected uses in residential developments must be at least 1,000 feet from a well.”
Here is the current ordinance (adopted in January, 2013). The section I want to focus on is on p. 11, 35.22.5.A.1 Separation Standards. Here is my read of it:
When it comes to Wells à Homes, we have now settled on a setback of 1,200 feet.
But when it comes to Homes à Wells, I think the relevant sub-section is d.: “…a Protected Use or Lot within a previously platted residential sub-division where one (1) or more lots have one (1) or more habitable structures may be located as close as two hundred fifty (250) feet of a pre-existing Drilling and Production Site...”
You think gas wells have to be 1,200 feet from homes and schools? Think again! Most of the future gas wells around here can be just 250 feet away.
We can have wells at 250 feet setbacks (without any special variance procedure) as long as it is a Homes à Wells situation. Note, though, the separation distance as stipulated by the next sub-section (e) is measured from the BOUNDARY of the Drilling and Production Site (not the well head) to the closest lot line of any undeveloped lot. Then take a look at that plat again – it seems to me that we have lot lines being drawn right up to the Drilling and Production Site…if not that, then they certainly appear to be less than 250 feet away.
So, for that reason, I would say this project is not legal. But it is on the consent agenda and recommended by Staff for approval.
But even more than that, we have the larger issue about whether we really want protected uses that close to wells…even if they are pre-existing wells. I know the rebuttal is: “buyers beware – they will know what they are getting into when they purchase the property, because the well is already there.” But this presumes a kind of informed consent that I don’t think is realistically there. I don’t think real estate companies or developers do much to inform their potential buyers about what it means to live with gas wells (it certainly isn’t in their interest to do so). How can there be informed consent under such circumstances?
And bigger yet…do we really want to live in a city that puts people that close to risks of industrial spills, leaks, accidents, and explosions? Is that responsible? This is the question we ought to ponder in the wake of the West fertilizer plant explosion. This is less about private choices than it is about our public obligation to shield future citizens from dangers they are bound to not fully understand and consent to.