Blog Archives

How Small Towns Think About Big Gas

Thanks to technological advances in natural gas exploration, many rural American towns are now confronted by a puzzle with which they have little experience: how to regulate gas drilling in their backyards. The reactions of local jurisdictions to natural gas have varied widely, as officials have considered the tradeoff between economic rewards and environmental risks. What explains the disparity in the approaches that local governments take to gas drilling? How do they decide about local policy?


Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Jessie Agatstein (MCP ’13) takes on this question in her thesis, which looks at local responses to natural gas drilling in three communities—Erie, CO, Washington County, ID, and Dryden, NY—all with populations under 20,000. These localities have adopted markedly different approaches to natural gas exploration. Erie has pursued negotiated agreements with specific developers, Washington County has utilized special use provisions to define where and how drilling may occur, and Dryden has banned the practice all together.

Much of this difference, Jessie notes, can be explained by two things. The first is the delegation of regulatory authority over natural gas exploration in many states to local governments, producing a wide array of policy approaches across countless jurisdictions. The second is what Jessie terms “problem diffusion.” It results from differences in how gas issues are viewed on the ground in different geographic contexts. Instead of copying the policies that other nearby jurisdictions have taken, local officials respond mostly to the problems that their neighbors have encountered and formulate policies that are intended to counteract these difficulties.

Jessie also notes the high level of sophistication with which local officials in the communities she studied with have approached natural gas exploration. Contradicting the stereotype of outmatched and incapable small town governments, officials have deftly navigated many complex issues. In some cases they have charted new policy territory. She cites the wealth of public information available online about natural gas impacts and local regulatory policy as strong contributors to the effectiveness of local officials in dealing with natural gas.

What insights can you share about how communities have reacted to natural gas exploration? Post a comment below, or read more in Jessie’s thesis.

Do Planners Have A Role in Wildfire?

Yes! Maybe it’s not strapping on heavy gear and dragging hose, but Molly Mowery (MCP 2008) argues that planners play an important role in shaping policies that reduce catastrophic wildfire incidents. Since writing her DUSP thesis on wildfire and development, Molly has been advocating for stronger links between planning decisions and wildfire risk. You can see her latest thoughts on this topic in this New York Times Room for Debate thread, “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?”

In Molly’s 2008 thesis, she claims that traditional roles dictate that the wildfire problem is someone else’s responsibility – namely, fire and emergency services. Yet planners and community leaders who sanction development decisions in wildfire-prone areas can and must ensure communities have taken measures to reduce their wildfire risk. With the recent home losses throughout the West, this issue is more timely than ever.

Photo credit: Molly Mowery

If planners DO allow development to occur in wildfire-prone areas (which, by the way, includes over 70,000 communities throughout the United States), they have a toolkit of options. These options reduce the likelihood of damage when a fire does occur, and include: overlay zoning districts that identify high-risk areas, development and design standards, subdivision ordinances, and comprehensive planning policies. Through such tools, planners can require vegetation maintenance surrounding a property, fire-resistant building and construction materials, adequate water supply, and access and driveway clearance. Incorporating standards into the development process before development occurs is more cost effective than retrofits. More importantly, proactive planning makes the job of the firefighter easier, and increases the likelihood that homes, businesses, and lives will be safe during a wildfire event.

Learn more about effective regulations to reduce wildfire risk at and general wildfire risk reduction programs by visiting the Fire Adapted Communities website: