November 28, 2014

Divided council denies conditional oil permit

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com
A request to drill oil on 160 acres near Kill Creek Road and 159th Street failed, despite an equally divided Gardner City Council. Three members of the governing body voted to overturn a planning commission recommendation to deny a conditional use permit, (CUP) and two members and the mayor voted to accept the commisison’s recommendation and the permit.
The tie vote means the city will not grant the Russell Family LLC a 20-year permit for 55 oil wells near Celebration Park.
Gardner officials financed sewer mains on the property via benefit district in the early 2000s. Landowners would pay off the sewer debt as residential property was developed there. However, when the bottom fell out of the real estate market, the land was not developed and the landowners were left with debt to pay for the benefit district.
John Gilchrist, an attorney representing the Russell Family LLC, told council members that the oil well permit will bring in revenue from the property until residential development takes off.
“No one has a crystal ball to say when this property will be developed for residential,” Gilchrist said. “My client has every incentive to make sure this property remains viable for long-term residential use. We’re asking for a 20-year CUP, which we believe that the residential demand will probably take that long to get to that point.”
Members of the planning commission, when they considered the permit, expressed concerns that capped oil wells on the property would be a deterrent for future residential development, but Gilchrist said there are several subdivisions in Gardner with capped wells. He listed Madison Reserve and Double Gate as examples.
“These wells are safe,” Gilchrist told the council. “Especially the wells in this area are low-pressure wells. They don’t go that deep.”
He noted that residential development has occurred near operating wells, too.
“If the argument is that having oil wells will prevent residential development, I think you can look at Symphony Farms,” he said.
A neighboring property owner wasn’t so sure however.
David Waters, an attorney for an owner of 160 acres adjacent to the property in question, said his clients filed a protest petition opposed to granting the CUP. The petition required a two-thirds governing body majority to allow the permit.
“This isn’t about one landowner’s financial problems,” Waters said. “This should be about land use. It’s looking at a particular peice of land and determining whether that use is appropriate in that area.”
Allowing oil wells there works against everything the city has planned for the area, he said.
“This is the area for future residential development,” Waters said. “You master planned this area for future growth. Your plan is a message to owners and developers about what they can expect from you and what you can expect from them. You invested heavily in a park. You’re school district invested heavily here and continues to.”
Waters noted that the property owners he represents have one abandoned oil well on their property, and that there are oil wells on other adjacent properties. Those neighbors are not annexed into Gardner, and Waters said if those owners requested more wells from the county, he would likely be advocating against them.
“The property is the way it was when (my clients) came into the property,” he said. “They would hope that (oil well) use would not expand.”
Mayor Chris Morrow agreed with the planning commission’s recommendation to deny the conditional use permit.
“My feeling is the property owner should have the right to do what they want with their own property, but the city has made an investment here,” Morrow said.
Council member Kristina Harrison said the application for an oil well permit is in order to help the applicant pay for those investments.
“To me, there were a lot of investments made from 2004-2008, we had a lot of benefit districts that were delayed or not paid. This applicant is trying to generate revenue to pay for it. They’re not asking for a break.”
Morrow said everyone has made bad investments.
“(The property owners) speculated on the property, and sometimes that doesn’t work out the way you anticipated,” Morrow said. “They had a good faith effort on the part of the city and we planned, and going forward we are still planning on residential development.”
Governing body members Morrow, Heath Freeman, and Larry Fotovich voted against granting the permit. Members Harrison, Tory Roberts and Steve Shute voted in favor of granting the permit. WIthout a two-thirds majority, the permit was denied.

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