Denton may once again amend gas well setbacks and “reverse setbacks” — the minimum distance between gas well sites and certain types of properties and development.
In a nearly two-hour discussion during a work session Tuesday, Denton City Council members talked with city staff about what extending the setbacks could do — from increasing public safety to inadvertently bringing legal or legislative action to the city from opponents of extensions.
The rules around setbacks have changed seven times since Denton first implemented them in 2001. As they stand now, when drilling or production sites come to town, the edge of the site’s construction zone has to be 1,000 feet way from “protected use” sites — such as schools, parks and hospitals. The city also has regulations for reverse setbacks — which are put in place when new construction will be built near an existing gas well site. There must be at least 250 feet from the edge of the new building and the production zone of the gas well.
If the council decided to change the setbacks to be larger, it could put the city up for legislative and legal risks, said Aaron Leal, the city attorney.
There’s a risk of lawsuits from oil and gas, real estate and development companies if changes are passed. Denton residents passed a fracking ban in 2015 and were met with House Bill 40, which took away local control of the oil and gas industry. That trend is continuing, City Manager Todd Hileman said, and if the state decides to overrule local control on the issue, the setbacks in place could be reduced.
“We’ve got a Legislature right now that in the last week is talking about pre-empting your ability to raise taxes, pre-empting your ability to have red light cameras; we’ve heard trees were on the table,” he said. “I think while our city attorney isn’t comfortable saying we have a 50 percent or 80 percent chance of being pre-empted, local control is definitely on their radar.”
Council member Deb Armintor pushed for the strongest expansion of the setbacks during Tuesday’s session — 1,500 feet for setbacks and reverse setbacks. She argued she’d rather the city face legal risks than the health and public safety risks of gas wells.
“We can talk about the health risks and the ambiguity of that, but there is no ambiguity that it’s dangerous to put kids close to these things, and that’s why as far as I’m concerned it’s a no-brainer,” she said.
Where the council seemed to reach some consensus was on extending reverse setbacks from 250 feet to 300 feet, with a majority of members indicating they’d be OK with that update. Additionally, they talked about how to navigate notifying homeowners and renters about where their property is in relation to gas wells.
No vote has been set on any issues related to the discussion, and the issue is going back to the Citizen Engagement Committee about notifying and educating the public about gas well sites, while the city staff collects more data on implications of changing setback distances.
Also during the work session, more information was presented about the revenue deficits at Water Works Park, the city-owned water park. Gary Packan, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, detailed how the staff would work to bring in more revenue in the coming seasons.
This year, the park fell short because of lofty projections. Initially staff thought there would be 90,000 visitors during the park’s season, but there were 73,047 by the time the park closed after Labor Day.
With lower attendance and the decrease in tickets sold paired with higher energy and chemical costs, Packan still projects the budget for the water park will fall short in the next few years. Moving forward, the staff is looking at new ways to close that budget gap, such as increased marketing and new partnerships with Denton ISD.
Armintor and council member Keely Briggs reiterated concerns about admission costs at Water Works, weeks after the council decided to lower daily ticket prices to $14 per person and $10 for children under 4 feet tall. They inquired about more package deals and promotions to get more people into the park.
At the end of the discussion, council member Gerard Hudspeth apologized to Packan, seemingly for Armintor’s and Briggs’ line of suggestions and questions, saying the behavior lacked consistency from council.
“We had this conversation exhaustively, then for you to bring it back with what we asked for and for us to say, ‘What else?’ after is troubling for me,” he said. “Individually, I am distressed by this conversation because it just lacks the consistency I want to convey from this body and that you deserve so that you can do your job.”