By DAN FITZSIMMONS, Commentary in Times Union.com
Published 10:01 p.m., Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Too many people are unaware that the famous promise in the American Declaration of Independence — to protect "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — was actually a last-minute edit. Thomas Jefferson had originally written, "Life, liberty and property," a phrase that more closely resembles our founding fathers' commitment to limited government influence on the people.
While the other authors nixed property and went with the more pleasant-sounding pursuit of happiness, Jefferson's choice of words proves prophetic for many New Yorker's today.
Right now, in excess of 70,000 New York residents are fighting to protect their property rights and prevent an effective government seizure of billions of dollars in personal wealth. Pick up any newspaper in the state, and you'll likely read about this government seizure. It's more commonly known as the debate over rules to develop natural gas in New York.
Unfortunately, it's rare to find more than a few sentences of coverage addressing the property seizure aspect of the state's ongoing moratorium on gas development. The critical rights of landowners have become no more than a mandatory talking point any fair reporter must include — "landowners claim drilling will bring economic benefits."
Last week, New York landowners changed that by announcing our own Declaration of Rights. This straightforward set of priorities will serve as a reminder to the public of the basic rights we're fighting to maintain as property owners and a yardstick to measure the actions of elected officials who have the power to take those rights from us.
Our expectations are simple. First and foremost, we're asking for the right to develop our property in a timely manner. The state has barred access to permits for natural gas developers for more than four years already. There is simply no justification for further delay.
Second, we're seeking a uniform statewide standard to govern development. Like highways, electricity production, or any other regional economic opportunity, successful development of natural gas resources requires cooperation at the state level.
Third, we're asking for reasonable, science-based protections for our land and water. No one has more at stake in protecting and safeguarding New York's environment than landowners. We are the greatest benefactors of straightforward regulatory guidelines flexible enough to preserve our property rights, minimize land disruption and protect the environmental value of our property.
I and my fellow mineral rights landowners believe most New Yorkers would view these as basic rights that go back to the very founding of this nation. They should apply to anyone's property.
But politics and sensationalism have often trumped informed dialogue in this state. While we appreciate the efforts of Southern Tier legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fight for New York's best interests, the reality is our state is in last place in the region, and falling further behind neighboring states each day.
Without progress soon, the hopeless delays we've experienced might put New York out of the race for competitive deals with natural gas companies. And, if that happens, both our state and landowners will be the losers. Now is the time to reaffirm the rights of landowners and New York property holders.
Too often in this debate, our well-established rights have been put second to the self-serving interests of others. As ordinary workers, parents, and voters, we are part-time advocates for our rights. We don't have the funding or time to compete with our full-time opponents. And there are plenty — from politicians seeking votes, to film producers making a living off of controversy or actors seeking a cause, to wealthy organizations like the Park Foundation that serve the interests of just a few wealthy donors.
Now we're setting the record straight as to what exactly New York mineral rights owners are asking for from state leaders. We hope our reasonable demands will be given greater attention.