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Local control being petitioned: No fracking referendum in Johnson County, yet

VIENNA — A community rights group and fracking opponents it is working with in Johnson County to assert local control over the drilling practice will begin circulating petitions to place a referendum on the spring ballot asking whether the controversial practice should be banned.

The petition drive was not their first choice as they sought an outright vote from Johnson County commissioners Monday for a referendum to let voters decide whether fracking, or high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, should be allowed.

What they got instead was encouragement from the commissioners to circulate petitions to collect a needed 374 signatures by Dec. 16 in order for a question to be asked on the March ballot.

A little more than a dozen people attended the meeting and several expressed their concerns about fracking, from night skies lit up from drilling flares to earthquakes, pollution and health risks including cancer. Many are upset that policy-makers living outside the county have made decisions that may impact local people, not themselves.

“I think it would look good on this group if you do something tonight, then you are showing the voters that, OK, maybe there is a concern here and we’re at least going to meet these people half way,” said Richard Craig of rural Vienna.

Local control over fracking is not necessarily a new argument made by groups such as Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, a local group that has been fighting fracking since it came to the region’s doorstep, including state legislation this year that established governing rules over the practice.

However, the issue of local control is taking more of center stage as SAFE continues its attempt to stop fracking before it begins in earnest, having announced late last month that it has teamed up with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to establish “Community Bills of Rights.”

On Monday, community rights coordinator Natalie Long presented a proposed referendum to the Johnson County commissioners, reading, “Shall the people’s right to local self government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health and safety?”

Following the meeting, Long and SAFE steering committee member Stephen Nickels were cautiously optimistic. While 192 leases in the county have been signed for mineral rights since Oct. 15, Nickels said, that number may not be representative of the 8,100 registered voters in the county.

“It would have been more convenient,” Long said of the commissioners’ no-vote. “But it sounds like there are people interested in moving forward so we will be seeing how we move forward.”

Long said she is working with SAFE on community rights across the region but stopped short of saying whether other referendums are being or will be sought.

Johnson County commissioners pointed to past referendums that gained a spot on previous ballots through petition drives as a precedent for their recommendation Monday.

County board Chairman Jeff Mears said he supports the effort and added that a drive may provide more opportunities for the groups to educate people and answer their questions as they circulate petitions.

However, should a ballot question seeking a ban pass, it would be a non-binding referendum, and when it comes to fracking itself, Mears remains on the fence, he said after the meeting. He did support a statewide one-year moratorium on fracking to learn more about the practice, a process he continues to undertake.

Just as disagreeable as it might be for state mandates bearing down on local governments, the same might be said of local governments telling property owners what they can and cannot do with their land, he said.

“I don’t think it is right for me to tell some landowners what they can do with their property. I find that kind of offensive,” Mears said. “I have to look out for the betterment of the whole county, and we have to listen to both sides of everything.”

No one at the meeting spoke in favor of fracking.

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