Aldermen to vote on oil well

Published 12:07 am Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NATCHEZ — Ward 4 Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields is not pumped about the idea of an oil well in his ward.

Neither are his constituents, Fields said, so when the matter comes to a vote today, Fields plans to say “no.”

“I am leaning to uphold the (preservation and planning commissions’) decisions,” Fields said.

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Mike Biglane of RMB Exploration has been seeking approval to drill for oil near the historic house Arlington. The Natchez Preservation Commission denied his request at its May 23 meeting.

Additionally, the Natchez Planning Commission voted 5-1 Thursday at a special call meeting to deny the oil operation.

Biglane will appeal the preservation commission’s decision to the Natchez Board of Aldermen at 11 a.m. today in the Natchez City Council Chambers.

The operation would need a certificate of appropriateness from the Natchez Preservation Commission because of its proximity to Arlington, rezoning approval from the Natchez Planning Commission and final approval from the aldermen.

A legal agreement approved by the aldermen at its Jan. 10 meeting allowed RMB to go ahead with preliminary drilling for the oil well at the company’s own risk without the necessary approvals from the city as long as RMB had an application in progress.

In the agreement, the city agrees not to take immediate enforcement action, delaying the consequences of the code violation if the well is successful until Biglane gets the necessary approvals and permits.

Natchez City Planner Bob Nix has said because the preliminary exploration resulted in a dry hole, Biglane withdrew his application and revised it to include the second unit. The second unit is on the opposite side of the oil exploration the company conducted earlier this year but includes a portion of the original site.

Nix said at last week’s planning commission meeting that the legal agreement would still apply to the proposed second unit because it is technically still the same application.

But Fields said that was not the original intention of the board.

“It was supposed to be a one-time hit or miss thing that would not affect the residents,” Fields said. “Then if (Biglane) wanted to go further, he was supposed to come back for approval from the preservation and planning commissions. We did not intend for that agreement to carry over.”

Some of the aldermen said at the January meeting they were concerned about approving the agreement. The board, however, ultimately decided the agreement was almost identical to the one they recently approved for DRAYCO Exploration’s operation that fronts Cemetery Road.

“But if they had went through the proper procedures, we wouldn’t be in this position,” Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said at the meeting. Dillard voted against approving the agreement.

Dillard and Ward 2 Alderman James “Rickey” Gray said Monday they were reviewing the documents and previous meeting minutes in order to be completely up to speed for the vote on the oil operation at today’s meeting.

Dillard did say that he believed few people would profit from the oil operation, but many people would pay.

Dillard and Fields both said they believe the aldermen should not have the final say in a project from which they stand to profit.

“It doesn’t have a sense of fairness to it,” Dillard said.

The city leased its mineral rights under Auburn Avenue, Winchester Road, Ashburn Street and Marks and Fry avenues to Biglane in an oil, gas and mineral lease dated Aug. 27, 2011. The city is entitled to royalties in the lease if the well is productive.

Fields said he thinks the city’s appeal procedural process needs a change. A judge previously decided appeals to preservation and planning commissions’ decisions, but that policy was changed when Phillip West was mayor. The aldermen now decide appeals.

“I think it’s something we should look at changing in some instances, like in this instance when we are a party (to the lease), Fields said. “So we can’t be accused of any wrongdoings or doing something behind closed doors or under the table.

“Regardless, my vote will reflect the voice of my constituents; that supersedes any kind of profit.”

Several residents have spoke out about the oil operation at planning and preservation commission meetings.

Resident Judy Pitchford Bartley, whose manages her family’s St. Charles Avenue residence, said she signed a oil lease with RMB but did not fully understand the operation and now regrets her decision.

“I was approached by (Biglane) and another individual, and nothing was really ever explained,” Bartley said. “It was like, ‘You sign, and we’ll take care of you, Judy.’”

Bartley said the lease required the signature of her brother, Jim Pitchford of Baton Rouge, but he refused to sign it. Bartley said, however, she is worried that she and her brother will be force pooled into the lease if the operation is approved.

Forced pooling essentially forces non-consenting landowners to join the agreements with their neighbors.

Resident Dianne Bunch said like the Pitchfords, the Bunches have lived on St. Charles Avenue since the turn of the century.

“I do not want to see our residences and our neighborhood upset (by the oil operation),” Bunch said.

St. Charles Avenue resident Nona Colombo said the peace and quiet of her St. Charles Avenue has already been disturbed.

Colombo said at a preservation commission meeting that she was unaware of the preliminary exploration until she heard the drilling that went on 24 hours a day for a few days.

Colombo, who lost her house in New Orleans after an oil spill flooded her neighborhood, said she was concerned that an accident could occur at Arlington.

“If there is an accident, it will (be in) our neighborhood,” she said. “And that is something we cannot get back.”