Church fends off Southfield officials on gas drilling

Jim Lynch

Southfield has become the latest Metro Detroit battleground as oil and natural gas wells sporadically crop up in developed residential areas, pitting neighbors who worry about potential contamination of the environment against the defenders of property rights.

In the last 18 months, the Democrat-led city has faced off with a local megachurch whose leaders leased mineral rights for exploration to a Traverse City firm that has faced drilling protests in other communities.

Local officials in Oakland and Macomb counties have found that Michigan law gives them little regulatory say in the matter, while legislative proposals to give local officials more power over drilling activities have stalled in the Republican-led Legislature.

Among those dismayed by the unexpected arrival of drilling near his backyard is Rob Rushing, a former Detroit police officer who a dozen years ago purchased a retirement house on Plumbrooke in Southfield. It never occurred to him that the massive Word of Faith International Christian Center just beyond the tree line behind his cul de sac might pose a problem.

But the church’s decision to lease drilling rights has Rushing, his neighbors and Southfield officials frustrated about their lack of power to prevent what they see as a potentially dangerous operation in their community.

Particularly galling to some residents is that Word of Faith is exempt from paying city taxes and its senior pastor, Keith Butler, is not a resident. Butler is a former Detroit City Council member who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2006.

“When I bought this house, I didn’t buy it so that my property values could drop ...” the 53-year-old Rushing said. “I thought Keith Butler was a minister, not a miner — a preacher, not a prospector.”

A spokesperson for Word of Faith did not return calls seeking comment.

But the church has addressed criticisms on its website, noting that the exploration doesn’t involve hydraulic fracturing, a natural gas extraction method that is controversial among environmentalists. The church also said the well would be located on a wooded portion of the church’s land to shield it from traffic and residential properties.

Despite enacting a moratorium on drilling, Southfield officials appear powerless to stop the project. Oakland County Circuit Judge Michael Warren dismissed the city’s legal action against Word of Faith and Jordan Exploration LLC, as well as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — which has the authority to issue drilling permits.

Southfield Fire Chief Jonny Menifee said Jordan Exploration has indicated it discovered significant amounts of natural gas during the testing process, but has not received any further information about the company’s intentions.

Two years ago, communities such as Scio Township, Rochester Hills and Shelby Township made two doomed attempts in Lansing to give local governments more authority.

Planning and zoning officials had discovered they could do little to stop drilling “unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources,” according to a 2011 state law. The state has a 300-foot buffer between residential structures and wells, and the number jumps to 450 feet in communities with more than 70,000 residents.

A pair of bills received a Senate floor vote in 2014, but were overwhelmingly rejected by the Republican-controlled body. The legislation would have prevented the DEQ from approving wells within 450 feet of a residential area or within communities with populations over 70,000, such as Southfield.

Opponents argued it would have a “chilling effect” on oil and gas development and could lead to “mission creep” regarding regulations.

Now-former Sen. Howard Walker, a Republican representing the Traverse City district where Jordan Exploration is based, led the push to defeat the bill. Walker’s political action committee received donations from energy-sector mainstays such as DTE Energy, Michigan Petroleum Jobbers, CMS Energy and the Michigan Petroleum PAC.

Proposals in the GOP-led House never got a hearing. One bill called for changes to the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, which prohibits townships and counties from regulating or controlling drilling. Another called for a minimum setback for wells.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, spearheaded efforts in the House without success. The 2015-16 session ended with no action on the legislation. “The House speaker made it very clear to me that it’s left to the committee chairman’s discretion as to what bills they take up, how they take them up and when,” he said.

House Committee on Energy Policy Chairman Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who also was the House majority floor leader, told The News last week he was persuaded by arguments the proposal could limit “economic growth and private property rights.”

Southfield officials are hoping that an appeal of their county court loss might help revive their fight against the proposed well.

But they said they are considering other options — some centered on what they consider Word of Faith’s encroachment on the community despite paying no taxes. On a website, Butler has said he helped found and oversee 300 churches and ministries in the United States and across the world, including in Alabama, Arizona and Florida as well as Bulgaria, Britain, Canada and South Africa.

“It sticks in the craw of everybody who lives here,” Mayor Kenson Siver said. “I can’t tell you the number of times that people who are really (angry) have brought this up. (Word of Faith) doesn’t pay taxes, and they don’t live here ...

“I’ve advised the city assessor that if they go full-bore on gas or oil extraction that we look into taxing the acre-and-a-half where their (drilling) operation is.”

While officials continue the battle, a Jordan Development official said it’s uncertain whether the company will start extracting natural gas in the future. The state has been on pace to issue its fewest number of drilling permits in almost 90 years.

“We’re still evaluating what we have out there at the site,” a Jordan Development spokesman said. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold on that well.”