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Oil battle waging: Natchez Planning Commission to hear RMB’s application

ROD GUAJARDO | The Natchez Democrat — State Street resident Leona Adams stands by signs she put in front of her house that request people driving by call their aldermen to protest RMB Exploration’s attempt to drill an oil well on historic Arlington property.

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Planning Commission is scheduled to hear RMB Exploration’s application to drill an oil well on Arlington property at the commission’s meeting today, and the issue seems far from over.

The Mississippi State Oil and Gas Board approved the application of Mike Biglane of RMB Exploration to drill the well last week. But board attorney Howard Leach said all of the board’s orders specifically outline that applicants must obtain any other permits from any other applicable entities, such as the city.

“What the board decided (last week) is that (Biglane) has complied with our regulatory requirements,” Leach said. “That’s not to say he does not need to get some other permit from someone else.”

The board, however, did not condition its approval on that, Leach said.

“Not getting approval from the city would not void out his permit from the board because he has complied with our requirements, but it might prevent him from operating,” Leach said.

The oil operation, which was denied for the second time by the preservation commission on Jan. 9, would be in the same location denied by both commissions and the Natchez Board of Aldermen last year. However, Biglane moved a portion of the project — the proposed oil tank farm — to a parcel of land accessed from the end of Ouachita Street.

Biglane’s operation needs a certificate of appropriateness from the preservation commission because it is in a historic district, and it also needs rezoning approval from the planning commission because the operation would be in a residential district.

The question, Leach said, is whether the oil and gas board takes the position that the city’s ordinances infringe upon the jurisdiction of the oil and gas board.

The Arlington issue is a “very complicated legal issue,” Leach said.

“I can’t give you an off the top of my head answer,” he said. “I can’t categorically say that we won’t get into a fight with the city. We have our rules and our regulations and our statutes that we are charged by the legislature to administer.”

“The question is again whether or not the city is in any way infringing on a state regulatory agency by having these rules in place,” Leach said.

City Attorney Hyde Carby declined to comment on the situation. Carby did say the city still contends that its code requires approval of the operation before a permit can be issued.

Mayor Butch Brown said he is confident that the planning commission will do its job as it sees fit.

“In my opinion, I suspect they’ll vote to go along with the preservation commission and reject it,” Brown said.

Brown agreed that the dilemma of the city’s code possibly conflicting with oil and gas board regulations and vice versa will have to be resolved.

Brown said the city has tried to use the DRAYCO oil operation on Cemetery Road as a “prototype” or “best practice” with oil wells in potentially sensitive areas. DRAYCO opted to directionally drill in an effort to not disturb the nearby city and national cemeteries.

Biglane has said that directionally drilling would increase his cost at Arlington form $130,000 to $300,000.

Biglane said Wednesday he has not considered what he will do if his application is denied by the planning commission today.

Biglane has other leases on historic property in the city, but he said he does not plan to drill at Monmouth, Dunleith or other historic places.

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Harris said he did not want to comment on Biglane’s application before the meeting.

“It’s going to come up, and there’s going to be plenty discussion,” Harris said.

St. Charles Avenue resident Leona Adams and her daughter Nona Colombo said they will be at the planning commission’s meeting to oppose the oil operation. Adams and Colombo have been some of the more vocal residents against the oil operation.

Adams placed signs outside her house urging people to call their aldermen to ensure city officials know where the residents stand.

“We’re hoping (the city) will realize that there are more people opposed to it that just the few of us,” she said.

Adams said she has had a lot of response since placing the signs in her yard.

“People have been calling me and telling me they are opposed to it, and people have also been driving by and giving thumbs up when I’m outside,” she said.

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields said he stands with Adams and the other residents in the area that are against the oil operation. Fields said he hopes the planning commission denies Biglane’s application.

“A compromise can be met; I don’t think we’re there yet,” Fields said. “I think (Biglane) can come up with some type of directional drilling where it won’t affect the neighbors. That may be a solution.”

Fields said he understands that mineral rights owners have a right to extract their minerals.

“But at the same time, it shouldn’t come at the expense of disturbing others.”

Approximately 70-80 people have signed a petition against the operation, Adams said. She said she hopes those people come to the planning commission meeting today.

“Now is the time to say you’re against it,” she said. “This particular oil well is important because it’s going to set precedence. Come to the council chambers with us and show that you’re against it.”

The planning commission will meet at 5:15 p.m. in the Natchez City Council Chambers.