Wallach v. Town of Dryden and Local Control of Hydraulic Fracturing

By Carter Hall—November 20, 2014 at 11:03 a.m.

jay_easementOn June 30 of this year the Court of Appeals of New York issued its final ruling in Wallach v. Town of Dryden, holding that municipalities in New York State have the authority to exclude hydraulic fracturing from their borders through zoning.[1] Although the case hinged upon the interpretation of a New York statute with no reach beyond the state’s borders, the Town of Dryden decision has significance for supporters and opponents of hydraulic fracturing throughout the country as a sign that local governments may erect serious barriers to the controversial practice even in the absence of stringent Federal or state regulation.

Dryden, a town of less than 15,000 people located outside of Ithaca, New York, prohibits all “industrial” development within town borders through its zoning code.[2] In August 2011 the town amended its zoning ordinance to specify that all activities related to oil and gas extraction are included in this general prohibition on industrial development.[3] Anschutz Exploration Corporation, an energy company that held leases to oil and gas rights on several Dryden properties, sued the town in New York State court in September 2011, arguing that New York’s Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law (“OGSL”)[4] preempted the amendment. Dryden prevailed on a motion for summary judgment, which was affirmed by state appellate court; the case reached New York’s highest court in summer 2014.[5]

The legal issue in the case was whether OGSL’s supersession clause, which states that the OGSL supersedes all “local laws or ordinances relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries,”[6] prevented towns like Dryden from passing zoning ordinances that exclude hydraulic fracturing. To answer this question, the Court of Appeals engaged in a straightforward exercise in statutory interpretation. Examining the plain language, statutory scheme, and legislative history of the law, the Court concluded that the supersession clause was intended to prevent municipalities from directly regulating oil and gas development—i.e., imposing specific technical and operational requirements on drillers.[7] Finding no indication that the OGSL was intended to curtail towns’ traditional home rule authority to enact zoning ordinances, the Court held that Dryden’s zoning amendment is not precluded under the supersession clause and affirmed the intermediate appellate court’s decision.[8]

The Court of Appeals decision vindicated hydraulic fracturing bans and moratoria enacted in Dryden and 179 other municipalities, with an additional 86 municipalities considering similar measures as of October 9, 2014. Many of these towns are underlain by the Marcellus Shale formation—estimated to be the largest natural gas reserves of any formation in the United States—and in the long run these ordinances could permanently place large quantities of natural gas beyond the reach of extractors. However, the Town of Dryden did not have the immediate effect of halting any ongoing hydraulic fracturing operations. New York State has had a de facto moratorium on the practice for six years, with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration refusing to permit any drilling until a study examining its health impacts is completed. Accordingly, no hydraulic fracturing was actually underway in New York State throughout the Town of Dryden litigation. Of course, if the moratorium is ever lifted, the decision will have real practical effect on the ability of energy companies to exploit New York’s natural gas reserves.

Because Town of Dryden was a state court decision hinging a narrow question of interpretation of a state statute, it has no legal effect beyond New York’s borders. However, the symbolic significance of Dryden’s victory reaches nationwide. Mary Anne Sumne, Dryden’s town supervisor, has expressed hopes for the decision’s impact beyond New York’s borders: “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”

The ability of towns in these states and others to restrict hydraulic fracturing will depend upon the interaction between state-specific home rule jurisprudence and natural resource laws, but Dryden’s high-profile victory has encouraged towns that have enacted similar ordinances from Hawaii to California to Texas. With the national politicians of both political parties largely in support of hydraulic fracturing and state-level governments varying dramatically in their oil and gas extraction regulations, local control efforts such as Dryden’s present one of the most formidable obstacles to the controversial practice.


[1] Wallach v. Town of Dryden, 23 N.Y.3d 728, 739 (2014), reargument denied, No. 2014-867, 2014 WL 5366261 (N.Y. Oct. 16, 2014).
[2] Id. at 739-40.
[3] Id. at 740.
[4] Id.
[5] Wallach, 23 N.Y. at 741.
[6]N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law § 23-0303(2) (McKinney).
[7] SeeWallach, 23 N.Y. at 750.
[8] Id. at 753-54.