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Mead Considering Moving to Home Rule Town — and More Power Over Oil and Gas Could Be Unintended Benefit

March 6, 2019
Mead leaders met Tuesday to consider asking voters to make the town a home rule municipality.

Mead leaders met Tuesday to consider asking voters to make the town a home rule municipality, renewing talks around an issue that has come up among officials in the recent past.

While the chance to gain greater control of regulating zoning restrictions, and therefore possibly the siting of oil and gas equipment, isn’t a factor that has driven Mead officials to weigh converting to home rule, it may be an added benefit anyway.

But it may not, depending on the fate and interpretation of a bill proposing sweeping reform of the extraction industry now under consideration — amid a well-attended protest and public hearing of it at the state Capitol on Tuesday — in the state Legislature.

Home rule status gives local governments greater autonomy over matters of local concern without state interference through establishing and enforcing a charter, as compared to statutory municipalities that have their sales tax collected by the state and are more limited to exercising powers the state grants them.

Home rule a possible ‘safety net’

Mead Mayor Colleen Whitlow wants to evaluate the possibility for the town again this year. About a year and a half ago, town leaders mulled the idea, but they ultimately took no action to progress the initiative.

“I want the Board of Trustees to look at the possibility of pursuing home rule for various reasons, including analyzing the benefits associated with self-collecting local sales taxes,” Whitlow said. “Home rule will allow Mead more freedom in handling local issues, including important land use and zoning decisions.”

But when board members last talked about whether to consider pursuing a vote on home rule, a factor supporting the governance model was that it could give more teeth to Mead’s permit use approval process for oil and gas development, according to former trustee Chris Cartwright.

The town in the past has struck agreements with oil and gas operators drilling within Mead on methods to mitigate the sound, odor and light pollution from extraction sites, but further codifying that process with home rule status lessens the chance operators would skirt it by pointing to rules stating the state’s oversight takes precedence, Cartwright said.

Home rule would have been “a safety net, to be able to say, ‘Yeah, we do have control over it,’ ” Cartwright said.

But the intent of converting to home rule would not have been preventing the placement of oil and gas equipment in town, Cartwright said.

Instead, he added, the town may want to invoke the additional land use power over oil and gas the bill would afford local governments in order to keep the drilling approval process in Mead less restrictive than it may become elsewhere due to the broad changes the legislation would make to the state’s oversight of the industry. Mead, which is in Weld County, has traditionally been more welcoming than Boulder County municipalities toward extraction proposals.

If the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s mission changes from “fostering” the industry to “regulating” it under the bill, Cartwright wonders if drilling in statutory towns might be more subject than home rule towns to a more burdensome regulatory climate.

“If the oil and gas commission in Denver goes into a regulatory type of environment as opposed to an encouraging type of environment, the town will lose the ability to have a decision of its own (if it remains statutory),” Cartwright said. “We won’t be able to say, ‘Yeah, it’s OK for you to drill there.’”

Unclear impact on power over drilling

But Colorado Municipal League Deputy Director Kevin Bommer believes the proposed oil and gas reform bill would apply no differently to statutory towns than home rule towns, though he acknowledged courts have ruled home rule municipalities have more authority in general over land use and zoning matters than statutory municipalities. He also noted both models provide very narrow control over oil and gas proposals.

Whether that generally greater power over land use and zoning gives more legal credence to home rule jurisdictions than statutory ones to regulate oil and gas is unclear, although Superior town leaders in December mentioned pursuing home rule status under the assumption that it would.

Superior spokesman Martin Toth said no further direction on exploring home rule has been given by the town’s elected leaders since it was first brought up, adding it would be discussed once officials have a clearer understanding of the proposed reform bill’s language.

But no local government — home rule nor statutory — could create drilling guidelines that are intentionally less restrictive than the state’s under the newly proposed law, according to a spokesperson for state House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, the bill’s sponsor in the lower chamber. The bill contains a clause that states whenever a conflict arises between state and local regulations, the set that gives a wider breadth of protection to public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife is the one that is followed.

To convert to home rule, Mead trustees would have to put a ballot question before voters for an initial approval of pursuing the model and then have another ballot item by which voters would elect members of a charter commission.

That commission would then work to draft the town’s charter, and a version of it would have to be approved again by voters before going into effect. If it is struck down at the ballot box initially, the commission would reconvene to try and work out the kinks to present a more palatable charter to voters.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .