TERRE HAUTE — The Vigo County Board of Commissioners on Monday denied a mining overlay request by Hunter von Leer, who wanted to drill for oil on property he owns east of Terre Haute, north of Hawthorn Park.
After a three-hour public hearing, Commissioners voted 3-0 against rezoning for a mining overlay and instructed the Vigo County Area Planning Department, along with the county attorney, to adopt clear standards on requirements of any future mining overlay used for oil drilling.
The vote came after the Vigo County Area Plan Commission failed last week to make a recommendation to deny or approve the overlay on the east side of 94 acres, which has an address of 6040 Old Maple Ave. More than 100 people, many from adjacent Hawthorn Woods subdivision, Monday urged commissioners to deny the mining overlay.
Commissioner Paul Mason moved to deny, seconded by Commissioner Judith Anderson. Commissioner President Mike Ciolli made the vote unanimous.
“We are the commissioners and this is our decision to make, but I think it is unheard of that we should have to make a decision, affecting so many people — Mr. von Leer and all of you people — on such little information and such short notice,” Anderson said.
“We had no idea a few months back that oil wells would be so prevalent in Vigo County. Now everybody is wanting on the bandwagon one way or the other. Somebody had good luck and now here we are,” Anderson said. “I have listened to both sides of this issue. I can’t say who is right or wrong at this point because these are things yet to have been proven to me. This is not to say that I would vote against another oil well. We have had this same issue over cell [phone] towers, just like oil wells,” she said.
Commissioners, faced with multiple requests for cell towers, often 100-feet-tall, established a policy a decade ago that new cellular telephone towers must provide the ability to co-locate equipment from other cellular providers.
After the meeting, von Leer, the movie and television actor who is a native of Terre Haute, said he was disappointed.
“They have shut down all future drilling in Vigo County with this motion as it pertains to the county’s [zoning] ordinance,” von Leer said. “It is not fair. It is not fair to the many hard-working farmers who had a chance to improve their lifestyle.
“They allowed wells to go through that will affect a poor section along Indiana 46. It looks like the high-dollar homes, the richer subdivisions, won today for that reason only, but they have those rights also,” he said.
“It’s a political year, elections are coming up,” von Leer added. “I am disappointed it was not based on fact. There were not proof of any health concerns caused” from oil wells, he added.
Commissioners after von Leer’s petition approved a mining overlay to develop four new wells on 13 acres for Hulman & Co., through the Grace Hulman and Anton Hulman Jr. Real Estate Trust. The overlay covers property on the west side of Hunt Street, about 3,000 feet north of the intersection of Indiana 42 and Hunt Street.
The commissioners’ action does not prevent von Leer from establishing a well on the west side of his property, however that would require a more costly slant drilled well, an action von Leer declined to say if he will pursue.
Jeremy Weir, executive director of the Vigo County Area Planning Department, said the eastern edge of von Leer’s property rests in an urbanized area, classified under state law as has having eight dwelling units within a quarter mile. Many of those homes are in Hawthorn Woods subdivision.
“Not all of that property falls in that urban definition,” Weir said after the meeting. “If it is considered urban, state code allows us to use zoning to regulate oil extraction and minerals including up to complete alienation if you can prove it has a detrimental, adverse impact” to nearby property owners, he said.
The zoning does not apply to the drilling itself, approved by state and federal agencies, but rather to any structures on the surface, such as pumps and oil storage tanks.
Outside of areas defined as urban, “state codes prohibits us from alienating the access to minerals on the property. The plan commission cannot build an ordinance that stops access at a complete alienation. We have interpreted that language to be that we can still require a mining overlay that has protections for our community. We can’t use it to prohibit or alienate the ability to get minerals such as oil … but can have a buffer or screening and a ventless or odorless agreement in place,” Weir said.
The Hulman & Co. petition was for a mining overlay outside an urbanized area.
Opponents cited health concerns and odor concerns as well as possible reductions in land values. County Attorney Michael Wright told objectors that there is no state or federal rule to protect against odors from hydrogen sulfide, often associated with oil drilling. “It is not regulated,” Wright said of hydrogen sulfide.