Decision to hire lease negotiator raises questions in Columbiana

August 9, 2012

COLUMBIANA, Ohio - There was some question among city council members last month over whether the city is moving forward with leasing property for oil and gas drilling.

Councilman Bob Bieshelt asked if the city has ever reached an agreement on leasing land.

"I don't recall council having ever voted on going forward with this. I feel we are getting ahead of ourselves," he said, referring to a letter from attorney Alan Wenger, of Harrington, Hoppe and Mitchell law offices.

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On May 15 four council members approved receiving a fee proposal from Wenger for services he could provide to the city in negotiating a land lease.

Bieshelt and Councilman Bryan Blakeman did not approve accepting a proposal, since they have both openly opposed drilling within city limits.

According to the letter dated July 6, Wenger would charge the city roughly $1,000 to $2,000 for representation and would be involved in the drafting of a custom lease.

He also said in the letter he is currently representing the Fairfield Township Board of Trustees, and if hired by the city, "could explore possibilities of mutual benefits between the city and the township that might develop."

Joining the two municipalities would depend upon the drilling or leasing company or companies involved, he added.

Due to the wording on the agenda, council members weren't sure if hiring Wenger meant they were approving leasing land.

Councilman Tom Ferguson pointed out the agenda read Wenger would be hired for the "negotiation of an oil and gas lease for city-owned land."

He then questioned whether council should pay money to hire Wenger if a decision hasn't been reached yet on moving forward with a lease.

Although council has discussed leasing land over the course of several months, no formal decision has been made at this point.

"Why have we waited so long to make a decision?" he asked.

Mayor David Spatholt said there are still things to consider, such as whether cemetery land will be included in leased land.

"There was never any further discussion on any of that as far as I can recall," he said.

Leasing cemetery land for oil and gas drilling has gained controversial attention nationally. On June 30, the Associated Press reported the possibility of drilling on cemetery land has raised moral questions, since some people view the land as "hallowed ground."

Yet another national issue that is hitting home in Columbiana is whether the drilling could contaminate public water supplies.

The city gets its water from nine wells in six different locations on the south end of town in Fairfield Township. The largest is on Camelot Drive, not far from a planned gas well on Fairfield School Road.

In April, Wenger told council that the likelihood of contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing was low, although surface spills are "guaranteed."

He suggested then they approve a lease as a way to have more control over local drilling. Councilman Lowell Schloneger has said several times he is concerned about the gas well near the Camelot Drive water well and hopes that a lease could give the city leverage as far as negotiating with the drilling company to put more distance between the two.

Drilling companies are allowed to drill within 500 feet of a property that has not been leased for drilling.

During the meeting there was some back and forth between Bieshelt and Schloneger, with Bieshelt saying that council should decide if members even want to move forward with leasing land before hiring anyone to negotiate on their behalf.

Ferguson and Schloneger said before deciding to lease land, they need to have their questions answered, and they believe Wenger would be able to answer those questions.

"If we hire him he would tell us those things," Schloneger said.

Ferguson made a motion the agenda be amended to say Wenger would be hired to "investigate options for a lease."

"I want as much information as I can get as to what this contract would look like for the benefit of this city and the benefit of the community so that I can make a decision," he said.

The amended motion was approved by all, except Blakeman and Councilman James King, who were absent due to other obligations that evening.

Bieshelt said he approved gathering information from Wenger because he wants to make sure there are ways to prevent water from being contaminated if council moves forward.



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