Lake Metroparks is taking a go-slow approach to deciding whether it will sign up and allow hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — on agency property.
Part of the discovery process, Lake Metroparks officials say, is determining whether fracking is even allowed on some units or parcels. That’s because a number of purchase and lease agreements may either forbid petroleum exploration while Lake Metroparks may not even hold title to a site’s mineral rights, agency officials say.
Even so, some Leroy Township residents are pressing their case, hoping to get an answer from Lake Metroparks sooner rather than later.
Yet the parks system’s three board members want to delve into the issue and learn as much as possible.
What is known is that an internal review of the agency’s title commitments for the 6,850 acres it owns has identified oil and gas leases on approximately 1,220 acres, said Vince Urbanski, Lake Metroparks’ director of park planning.
“What we found was that the leases were entered into by previous landowners prior to the property’s sale to Lake Metroparks,” Urbanski said. “And with the possible exception of the Lakeshore Reservation wells, these leases were entered into in the 1980s with the earliest lease from 1940 and the latest from 2006,” he said.
However, none of the leases were specific to fracking wells, Urbanski said.
At this time three active wells exist at Hogback Ridge Park in Madison Township, and two at Pleasant Valley Park along the Chagrin River in Willoughby Hills.
“We currently receive royalties on these wells,” he said.
A further look at paperwork found out either Lake Metroparks or some of the properties’ previous owners had wells capped at multiple properties throughout the county, Urbanski said.
“We have not yet examined any of the individual leases to determine their current status; whether or not they have expired or terminated, and whether or not they are applicable to fracking,” he said. “We need to decide if we want to have someone examine these individually.”
As for the 550 acres on which the agency holds conservation easements, “our typical language would allow a landowner to lease the subsurface rights but not to drill within the easement area,” Urbanski said.
The agency also leases 720 acres of land from various municipalities and organizations, such as the property known as Veteran’s Park in Mentor.
And the majority of these agreements state that there shall be no assignment or sublease of the property without approval by the lessor, Urbanski said.
“One specifically excludes mineral rights and one grants Lake Metroparks the mineral rights pending approval by the lessor,” Urbanski said.
Hoping to pin Lake Metroparks down are a number of Leroy Townships residents, several of whom have attended park board meetings to express their thoughts.
Among those speaking and pressing the agency for a commitment is Ellen Nelson, whose Leroy Township homestead edges Lake Metroparks’ Hell Hollow Reservation.
“I’d like Lake Metroparks to take a stand and say ‘no,’” Nelson said. “Lake Metroparks is influential and if it does say no then I believe other property owners will follow.”
Nelson said that when it comes to either protecting the environment or chasing the money, Lake Metroparks’s reputation would be better served by observing the former rather than the latter.
This is particularly true since some fracking sites have been linked to poisoned water wells, Nelson said.
“You can’t drink money,” Nelson said.
Paul Palagyi, Lake Metroparks executive director, said his research shows that the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association’s review of the subject reveals that the state’s county parks systems have taken positions “across the spectrum, and many are still considering the issue.”
“They do not have a specific list of park decisions on this matter so I have reached out to a few districts to discern their position and I will share that information as it becomes available,” Palagyi said.
Besides, Palagyi says, the entire issue may be premature anyway. Part of the reason for this is because of a glut of natural gas on the market which has slowed further exploratory well digging.
Palagyi said also that it is his intention is to continue to provide additional information to the board.
Which is exactly the methodology needed to undertake a thorough review of the issue, park commissioners say.
“The parks have been very pro-active, and we’ve been studying it both pro and con,” said park board president Ellen Foley Kessler. “Because we haven’t been approached we haven’t made a decision but we are certainly educating ourselves on the issues. We’re trying to do our homework.”
Yet the controversial drilling process may have one strike against it even before the first gallon of fracking fluid is injected into the ground.
The two other parks system’s board members recently expressed their doubts as to whether gas and oil drilling has a place in the parks system.
“As a board our mission for the parks system is ‘conservation, preservation and education’ and I don’t see how fracking fits in with that,” said park board member Frank J. Polivka. “There could be a huge impact.”
Even more concerned is the newest park board member, Dennis E. Eckart.
Eckart once served as the area’s U.S. Representative and was familiar with the practice back then. Just as he is now as a businessman and a conservationist.
“There are very significant geological concerns here,” Eckart said.
Of equal value, says Eckart, is the goal of the parks system to keep the public “in the loop” and conduct its affairs as transparently as possible with no “secret answers.”
“(But) my concern is that the state will take the power out of the hands of the people, including governmental agencies like Lake Metroparks,” Eckart said. “A big part of the problem is that we don’t even know what the rules are going to be.”
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn