Protecting city parks for the future

April 1, 2016

Citizen initiatives are an important part of the political process, one that helps keep political leaders accountable to the residents they report to. In the case of the citizen's group, Don't Drill The Hills, which sued the city of Rochester Hills in 2014, alleging the city overstepped its authority by signing a lease for oil and gas exploration beneath Nowicki Park, Tienken Road Park, and Van Hoosen Jones Stoney Creek Cemetery without voter approval, we applaud their efforts despite both the circuit court and court of appeals rulings that mineral rights beneath the 61-acres of city-owned land is permissible under state law and city charter.

The crux of Don't Drill the Hills' lawsuit stemmed from the assertion that voters passed an amendment to the city's charter in November 2011 to protect the city's parks from being sold, leased, transferred, exchanged or converted to another use unless approved by voters. Then, in January of 2013, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett signed an oil and gas lease with Jordan Development for the company to drill directionally in city-owned parks and a cemetery, without a vote of residents, although public hearings were held at two city council meetings in 2012. The suit also alleged the city violated state law that prohibits the sale of park property without a vote by the people.

The lawsuit was denied at the circuit court level by Oakland Count Circuit Court Judge James Alexander, and it was taken before the state court of appeals. The appeals court's decision on March 24, 2016, upholds Judge Alexander's ruling, affirming that the while the city owns the surface of the park's property, the lease agreement did not convey title to the land, but a conveyance for a specific purpose, the extraction, of oil or gas, which is permissible.

The Don't Drill the Hills group stated after its ruling that they are reassessing the situation. If anything, this should be a learning tool for any community, from officials to community activists, on how they deal with their charter, and the importance of respecting their voters and their city property. We have no doubt that when Rochester Hills' charter was first enacted, no one could have imagined directional drilling, much less in one of the community's beautiful parks. But in 2011, when Rochester Hills asked its voters to approve a charter amendment to protect it's parks from being sold, leased, transferred, exchanged or converted to another use unless approved by voters, directional drilling and fracking were already in existence, although it's possible that residents, and perhaps council members, could not have conceived of the likelihood of a company drilling beneath their treasured parks or cemetery. 

While the situation ironically has become moot, despite the lawsuit's outcome, as Jordan Development discovered the parks were dry for oil and gas, Rochester Hills must realize that evolving technology and scientific discoveries are perpetually in motion. Who knows what possibilities could be available for the parks' mineral rights in 10 years?

If the idea is to protect the parks, including the land beneath them, city council and the mayor must respect its residents enough to consider revising the charter amendment with an open public hearing and a vote of its citizens.

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