Land and Liberty Aren’t Free
The Town of Oneonta, Otsego County, New York held a Town Board meeting recently at which Attorney Karen Moreau of the Land and Liberty Foundation spoke about the risks of enacting shale gas development bans that have produced lawsuits against the Towns of Dryden (Tompkins County) and Middlefield (Otsego County). The meeting, which was attended by approximately 35 citizens, focused largely on this subject. Moreau made a point of noting, in contrast to the Slottje’s who advertise themselves as “pro-bono” attorneys, that she was not there to provide “free legal advice” to the Town that will inevitably be challenged in court but, rather, to represent landowners who would greatly benefit from Marcellus Shale gas exploration coming to New York.
Moreau is a skilled attorney and made every point very clear and easy for the audience to understand. She began by painting a picture of her life as a landowner, farmer and lawyer. She grew up on a farm in the Hudson Valley and attended law school in Albany, New York. She spent eight years working with the Agricultural Committee in the New York State Senate and now primarily works in real estate law, while also leading the Land and Liberty Foundation. Additionally, she often writes for the New York Post.
One of the striking aspects of Moreau’s talk was her in-depth understanding and empathy with the plight of Upstate New York and its rural landowners. She discussed the poverty and economic stagnation plaguing Upstate New York. Unemployment is high and jobs are scarce. Many people are struggling to pay bills and, in turn, losing their homes to bank foreclosures. These people, especially hard working farmers, desperately need the economic benefits natural gas exploration will provide.
Moreau also pointed out that economic benefits are not the only benefits New York will recieve from natural gas development. Infrastructure, especially roads, will receive much needed attention courtesy of natural gas.
She also answered a number of questions about what natural gas exploration will mean for Upstate New York. For instance, what will natural gas exploration look like?
What does one gas well in the Southern Tier of New York State mean in tax dollars?
Will the opinions of a few decide who will benefit from this opportunity as some towns attempt bans on natural gas exploration?
Moreau also discussed what “free” legal advice really means, offering a reality check for Town Board members. The shale gas ban pitch being made by the Park Foundation funded Community Environmental Defense Council is now all too familiar. Some towns who have received, or considered accepting this “free” legal advice have included Bethel, Caroline, Dryden and Lumberland just to name a few. Dryden is now being sued, of course, and who can forget David Slottje’s “lawyer up, big guy” threat and Helen’s bizarre followup suggestion that releasing those words violate copyright laws. That should provide everyone a clear signals as to the quality of their legal advice and understanding of what is practicable under the law. Not too mention of course David’s admission in Bethel that they don’t defend what they advocate. That is a bizarre new twist in a profession wrought with back of the phone book attorneys eager to take folks many for dubious legal claims.
Here’s a question worth asking. If a town’s “free” attorney is not willing to defend them in court, what good is the “free” legal advice they offer? It’s pretty easy for a non-paid attorney to say, “whoops, sorry, but good luck!” and walk away from a case not having to deal with the fallout of the very statute they shepherded a town to accept. Lawyers supported financially by a special interest group will, of course, urge public officials to accept their “group think” but common sense instructs otherwise. Independent legal advice, the kind one pays for unless indigent, is clearly the least expensive.
During her presentation, Moreau addressed some specific issue and questions the Town Board and others should ask themselves before accepting such “free” legal advice.
She also quoted from the Town’s Comprehensive Plan: “The Town Board additionally declares that the right to own and use private property as guaranteed by the constitution is a fundamental American freedom and the foundation of the Town of Oneonta’s Comprehensive Plan.” She explained that Oneonta’s Comprehensive Plan, with this statement, clearly acknowledges landowner rights and their critically importance to the Town of Oneonta. Taking those rights away from landowners would violate both the spirit of the Comprehensive Plan and the legal foundation for any other regulations, subjecting the Town to the threat of litigation.
Moreau concluded her presentation to the Town Board by asking the members to consider who they should to take legal advice from. Biased attorneys could steer the Town directly into a lawsuit to satisfy the organizations supporting them, she noted, explaining that “free” legal advice is likely to very costly.