Southfield’s suit to stop church from oil drilling dismissed; appeal planned

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The city of Southfield’s lawsuit against a church’s plans to build an oil well on its grounds was thrown out by an Oakland County Circuit judge Monday.

The Southfield City Council unanimously agreed to file an appeal.

Judge Michael Warren found that Southfield’s attempts to block and regulate oil drilling by Jordan Development on Word of Faith church property by use of its zoning ordinances were unconstitutional.

The attempt violates the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act’s Part 615, which gives the state Supervisor of Wells, a division of the Department of Environmental Quality, jurisdiction over oil and gas conservation, the ruling said.

“Part 615 expressly and specifically grants the authority to regulate oil and gas matters to one person — the Supervisor of Wells,” Warren said in the decision in a motion for summary judgment. “Southfield has violated its limited statutory role by attempting to directly regulate the activities at issue.”

Former state Attorney General Mike Cox, who represented Word of Faith and Jordan Development in the bid to search for oil on 110 acres at West Nine Mile and Evergreen, said Warren merely applied the law in this case.

“Southfield City Council can’t undo what the state already determined,” Cox said, referring to the authority given to the Supervisor of Wells by the state.

If Warren had decided Southfield could impose its zoning restriction, Cox said it would have made it difficult for gas and oil developers to comply with the array of regulations of municipalities across the state.

“It would have undermined DEQ’s goal to create a uniform set of regulation,” Cox said. “This way, people know what to expect. Those who want to drill oil and make Michigan energy independent know what to do.”

Southfield Mayor Kenson Siver said Tuesday he was "extremely disappointed" about the decision, citing concerns about the oil well near a nature preserve and neighborhoods where some people use well water instead of Detroit's system. He added that the council has begun paperwork to file an appeal.

"It's not compatible with neighborhood life," Siver said. "We believe the city has a right to zone. Our case is about local control, not about whether the state can issue drilling permits."

Hundreds of residents had expressed concern over noise and the effects drilling could have on the environment around the operation. Jordan Development leaders have said the company is environmentally conscientious and would not perform hydraulic fracturing on the property.

Word of Faith is led by Bishop Keith Butler, a former Detroit City Council member. .

“A successful oil well would be very beneficial to the church and surrounding community,” church officials said on their website in February.

In July 2015, Worth of Faith granted contractual rights to drill for oil and gas to Jordan Development. That October, Jordan Development submitted an application to the state environment department for a permit to drill a 2,900-foot oil well.

After a four-month application process extended because of high interest, the department issued a permit in March. It included 27 special conditions with which the company would have to comply.

“DEQ made this the most vetted ever,” Cox said.

A week after the permit was issued, Southfield filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent Jordan Development from exploring for oil pending a hearing on the city’s arguments.

“We feel this is a zoning issue and are trying to enforce our zoning regulations,” city attorney Susan Ward-Witkowski said in March. “There will be no cutting of trees, no drilling for oil. ... This is no for now.”

Warren, however, found in Monday’s decision that local municipalities are limited in their involvement in the Supervisor of Wells’ permit process, allowing for the city to provide comments and a recommendation.

The regulation of drilling “has been given by the Legislature to a centralized decision maker who can act uniformly and provide the most effective means of giving effect to the state’s declared policy of preventing the unwarranted exploitation and ‘waste’ of oil and gas resources,” Warren said.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @RightandNoble