EDITORIAL: Urban sprawl in Colorado threatens property rights

Oil wells have long been part of the residential urban landscape, such as this one in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

Consumers buy or build homes near airports throughout the country and begin complaining about airplane noise. They demand quieter planes and costly, unnatural flight patterns as their detractors ask why they moved so close to the airport.

When suburbs sprawl into farm country, new residents complain about the smell of chickens or pigs, hoping to control and reshape ages-old agricultural practices.

A similar phenomenon threatens oil and gas production and affordable housing, as northern Colorado suburbs sprawl into the countryside.

A story by Mark Jaffe in Colorado Politics tells of 3,660 housing starts in 2017 in “the heart of the oil and gas field” in nine communities between Thornton to Timnath.

Between 2010 and 2016, five counties north of Denver added 187,000 residents. Thornton grew from 60,000 residents in 1993 to 140,000 in 2017, and expects to add an additional 100,000 residents during the next 25 years.

As sprawling developments encroach on land that sits above oil and gas, owners of new homes increasingly pressure local governments to ban or severely restrict energy extraction near their homes. In doing so, they also create obstacles to housing developers who have traditionally built atop subsurface mineral rights in anticipation energy production will coexist with housing.

“The discussion around much of the Oil and Gas regulations and initiatives revolves around setbacks,” the Colorado Association of Homebuilders said in a position statement. “Unreasonable and excessive setback requirements eliminate significant land that is currently or prospectively planned for new communities. Investment in land, planning and existing infrastructure are at risk.”

In a state desperately short on homes, efforts to separate energy production from residential neighborhoods counters the need for affordable housing.

It is hard to make objective sense of the hysteria about energy production in urban environments. The Colorado Supreme Court struck Greeley’s ban on drilling within city limits in 1992, and 26 years later the city enjoys unprecedented prosperity with 489 active wells scattered throughout neighborhoods. More than 3,000 active wells produce oil and gas in Los Angeles.

Energy wells have produced in and alongside residential neighborhoods for generations, but modern environmental activism fuels anxiety that threatens high-wage energy jobs, property rights, and homes for people who desperately need them.

“You are going to get pushback, (and) sooner or later the Legislature has to realize, 60 percent of the votes come from metro Denver, and the majority of voters aren’t going to stand for it,” said Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley.

In other words, Mayor Bagley expects legislators to place popular sentiment above rule of law. If a “majority of voters” won’t stand for property rights protecting energy production, the Legislature should tread on the law.

We don’t allow mob rule by “the majority of voters.” That’s why Colorado courts have stricken a succession of attempted bans and restrictions enacted to impede energy production and will continue doing so.

Meanwhile, oil and gas producers show laudable willingness to work with communities to develop memorandums of understanding. The agreements represent efforts by two opposing interests to compromise.

Broomfield, unable to quash energy production, negotiated with Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas on a memorandum of understanding. The company agreed to reduce wells from 139 to 84.

“We believe that by listening to the concerns of Colorado’s growing communities, we can find ways to work together,” said former Denver Post Editorial Page Editor Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “Lawsuits are always a last resort.”

Homeowners cannot move on top of oil and gas assets, which they did not buy, and expect governments to render the energy useless. The courts cannot allow it, given the protections of property rights preserved in state and federal law.

Residents can ask for reasonable cooperation by oil and gas producers. Those businesses, with the law on their side, can and should make reasonable efforts to act as good neighbors.

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