This blog chronicles and analyzes developments in the Upper Delaware Valley, with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and what people are doing to make this a better place. You can find news here as well as commentary - but don't expect neutrality. The award-winning editorial writer for The River Reporter from 2004 to 2012, I am an advocate for sustainability, self-sufficient economic growth vs. globalization and protecting the environment on which our health, prosperity and quality of life depend.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gas drilling and the new feudalism

A friend recently called my attention to a post by "Kilgour Farms" over at Natural Gas Forums (http://www.naturalgasforums.com/index.php/topic,17939.msg232166.html#new) that draws a parallel between the Anti-Rent War that occurred in upper New York State in 1846, which “put to rest fuedelism (sic) in America,” and the struggle of some current landowners to lease their land for natural gas drilling.

I agree that feudalism has raised its ugly head again in the current debate over natural gas drilling in our area. But it is not the small landowners trying to preserve the rural residential character of their neighborhoods and the value of their land by keeping out heavy industrial activity who are behaving like feudal overlords. It is, duh, the large landowners who are trying to leverage the power of their acreage to impose land uses that serve their own private interests, regardless of the costs to small landowners and renters in the community.

During the Anti-Rent war, (http://www.oneonta.edu/library/dailylife/protest/index.html), tenant farmers were protesting a system in which large landowners leased  their land to farmers via perpetual leases rather than selling the land outright. The landowners retained the rights, among other things, to mineral, lumber, and water rights. Presumably it’s the “mineral rights” phrase that struck a chord with Kilgour Farms, with the modern-day analogy being government as the evil landowner, and large landowners like Kilgour being the downtrodden.

Only one problem: in our country, governments that derive their powers from a democratic system with one vote per man—especially the municipal governments that control most land use issues—are light years away from a single landowner who has nothing to consult but his own wishes. The body that, in some towns, is telling large landowners that they cannot host large-scale industrial activity is composed of their more numerous neighbors, each of whom stands to suffer more grievously from what the large landowners want to do than the landowners stand to gain.

After all, the pro-drilling landowners have held their land for years without even knowing the option of gas drilling existed. All they are giving up is a hitherto unknown opportunity. Small property owners stand to lose pretty much everything they already have—their health, a contaminated water supply, their homes and the majority of their wealth due to revoked mortgages by banks unwilling to take the risks associated with gas drilling.

Note, by the way, that these same municipalities have for years granted huge tax breaks to these large landowners in return for their good stewardship of the land for, e.g., forestry purposes—and the same small landowner neighbors have paid a disproportionately high share of taxes to make that possible.

All of this bears no relationship to the private individual landowners imposing their will on their small tenants that the Anti-Rent war protested.

On the contrary, when Noel van Swol of the pro-drilling Joint Landowners Coalition of NY stands up in the Town of Delaware meetings and prefaces his remarks with how many acres he represents in the town—and refuses to answer the question, “and how many people do you represent?”—he is reflecting precisely the view of the medieval overlord: my land is my might, and you must do deference to it. It’s not about people. It’s about land, and who owns the most. And my land makes my will law.

In his post, Kilgour quotes an Anti-Rent leader, Dr. Smith Boughton: "The purpose of our society is not for the few of maximum strength and ambition to lead lives of Byzantine glory, but for men to make the most of their common humanity.”

Indeed. Hence the importance of preserving our common assets, like clean water and air, essential to the wellbeing of all—even if it deprives a few of a special windfall that allows them to "lead lives of Byzantine glory."

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