Monday, April 22, 2013

P&Z is About to Break the Law...And Lessons from West's Explosion

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.


  1. Please note that a Realtor can not protect clients from properties built near gas wells unless they are well informed of where they are and how far away they are located from the nearest homesite. No one is informing or providing that info to Realtors, so it is a "buyer beware" situation. All subdivisions should disclose any possible hazard to potential buyers, but one would expect the same now as what has happened in the past - they generally disclose in very small print buried in tons of paperwork, if at all. I'm more knowledgeable than most, but I don't own measuring devices that go 250 feet, much less 1,000 feet and can neither keep up where a past well was drilled if it is disguised in a pretty little park, nor determine where drilling may take place in the future. It already is common practice for the builder to build out close to pre-existing wells. I point out such things to clients when I have knowledge of them - as is required by our Code of Ethics. Even so, I have very little knowledge on each of the 1,000s of wells in this area. Therefore, it is the duty of our City to protect its citizens from the unknown dangers by not allowing such foolish practice as homes within spitting distance of existing or proposed well sites.

  2. They have sales office at Robson Ranch and these are staffed by sales people, not realtors, so they don't care what the code of ethics says. They will deceive, circumvent, cover up, and misrepresent what their bylaws and contract say to sell the properties. Have you ever been there? Their "gas parks" are placed in the center of a group of home with a large masonary wall around them. They plant trees and have park benches. They have benign names like "sunrise park" and not until you walk around the back side do you see the "Warning" and "Hazardous" signs. It is buyer beware but the Robson people will not make them aware because they do not want to decrease their property values.
    I have heard from people at Robson Ranch if they are not allowed to build new homes closer than 1200 ft from the gas well sites there will not be enough money to fund their HOAs. Many residents of Robson Ranch want the whole setback issue to be changed back to 500ft. So, this means some folks there want to make sure they have plenty of money to build more golf courses and water them. If it means a gas well is placed 250ft from a school SO WHAT!.
    This group has more sway than other groups in Denton because they vote. So until more people use their true voices and vote then we will always be at the mercy of the wants and needs of Robson Ranch folks. This plat approval will be but one brick in the first of many which will weaken the foundation our ordinances.
    This is the problem I have always had with the ordinances, too many lawyers and consultants were involved in the process who represent the best interest of the developers of Robson and Hunter Ranch.
    If staff said approve it then they know it will withstand a legal challenge because the lawyers told the city how to use vague and deceiving language so gas wells could be placed anywhere on the future developments.
    The planning and zoning will approve this because the do not or will not challenge city staff. I saw this when they approved Phase 2 of the drilling ordinances.
    Unfortunately, we do not stand a chance against the oil and gas industry, and our ordinances, although better, are designed to allow this kind of development and the people of Robson Ranch want it and welcome it. I mean really a bigger golf course or a safer school? How many school children live at Robson Ranch?

  3. Ok, I looked at the plat and realized it is not Robson Ranch but even so everything I stated above is true. Now, that being said, the proposed gas well site is illegal. Even after the city changed the ordinance they still cannot drill a gas well within 250 ft of a plat or home even if everyone signs a waiver, which is now not required. The setbacks has to be measured from the edge of the site. This site is just 2 acres so that would make it pretty much impossible to drill a gas well legally on that property. My suggestion to these greed bastards or bastardettes is decrease the amount of home lots to comply with our current ordinance. I don't imagine the price of 10 or 20 home lots will break the bank. I would be interested to see who hold the lease on these gas wells. Is it someone who "contributed" "consulted" or "conspired" regarding our new ordinances?

  4. One more thing I thought of, so what if it is "informed consent". Who bears the financial burden when these site exploded or leaking harming or killing people. Just like West the majority of the financial burden will be bore by the taxpayer in the form of state, federal relief, and increases insurance cost to offset the money needed to re-build.
    I believe assisting people, don't get me wrong, but how much of a financial burden do we bear when these sites go horribly wrong. The developers and gas well productions companies file bankruptcy and we are left to shoulder the financial burden.
    We must and should help people but development must be rationale and protective also.

  5. Property is off Ryan Road, which is where the Ryan Ranch is located, so I would guess the mineral rights are owned by the Ryan family. Also have been told that there is some sort of restriction on wells being located on the actual ranch so that may explain why the well is where it is instead of a nice empty field. Lease is between Ryan Rd JV & Mid Continent (now Endeavor).