July 11, 2016 - 4:20 PM EDT
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Judge dismisses Southfield bid to block Word of Faith church oil well

July 12--The City of Southfield's lawsuit attempting to stop the drilling of an oil well on a church's property in the city was thrown out by an Oakland County Circuit Court judge Monday.

Judge Michael Warren sided with Word of Faith Christian Center Church and Jordan Development Co., the company that intends to drill an exploratory oil and gas well on the church's 110 acres off West 9 Mile and Evergreen roads, in a motion for summary disposition that ends the case without a trial.

Warren, in his ruling, noted that the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act's Part 615 gives the state Supervisor of Wells, a division of the Department of Environmental Quality, authority to regulate oil and gas development in the state. He rejected Southfield officials' arguments that their zoning ordinance limiting where and how drilling can occur takes precedence.

"Southfield's efforts here directly conflict with Part 615," Warren stated in his ruling. "To the extent they do not, they at the very least interfere with the Supervisor of Wells' authority to create a uniform, statewide system" of oil and gas regulation.

Former state Attorney General Mike Cox, who represented Word of Faith and Jordan Development in the case, praised the judge's ruling.

"The opinion is pretty clear to say that the Legislature says that the Supervisor of Wells, which is the DEQ, makes these calls," he said.

The alternative, Cox said, would be oil and gas developers struggling to comply with local regulations that varied widely from place to place -- running counter to the law's stated mission of developing Michigan's oil and gas resources.

"It would be a patchwork of regulation that no one could figure out," he said. "It would just have horrendous consequences for regular folks -- not only for people who want to drill."

Southfield Mayor Kenson Siver said he was "extremely disappointed" in Warren's decision, and that he planned to recommend to the city council when it met later Monday that it appeal the ruling to the state Court of Appeals.

"Our case is not based on whether the DEQ has the right to issue drilling permits; it's based on home rule and the ability of a city to zone, and decide what's permissible in a given zone," he said.

A Traverse City attorney who has worked with local communities on developing moratoriums and zoning to protect against oil and gas drilling said Southfield has a strong case for an appeal.

"Cities, under state zoning law, have very broad police powers to protect health, safety and welfare," he said. "None of those general police powers granted to municipalities contain any oil and gas exemptions."

Word of Faith is run by Bishop Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman and GOP candidate for U.S. Senate. Church officials said they were approached last year by Jordan Development after the company's seismic testing in the area determined it may have underground oil or gas worth tapping. A Word of Faith official earlier told the Free Press that the church intends to use any revenues from the well toward its mission work with the poor in the community and beyond.

State Supervisor of Wells Harold "Hal" Fitch approved Jordan Development's permit request to drill at Word of Faith in March, including 27 special conditions on the permit pertaining to hours of operation, lighting, gas flares, odor control and other items.

"It was the most vetted permit in state history," Cox said.

But days after Fitch's approval, Warren granted a temporary injunction filed by the city halting development of the well, pending hearings on the city's arguments that it should not be allowed. Among the city's contentions was that an oil well in the residential area will create a nuisance, increase pollution and harm the health and well-being of nearby residents.

But Warren noted in his ruling Monday that the city is limited by law to providing written comments and recommendations to the state Supervisor of Wells pertaining to applications for permits to drill and operate within its limits. The state constitution precludes a municipality from enacting an ordinance that gives it regulatory authority in an area the state already regulates, Warren further stated.

"The subject matter of oil and gas drilling evokes such strong emotions in localities that the decision as to where any well for oil and gas is to be located was not given to the locality, but instead, 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 stated in his ruling.

Larry Quarles, a 44-year resident of Southfield who lives within a mile of the proposed well location and opposes the drilling, said the judge's ruling was somewhat expected by him.

"We've found ourselves in a situation where our government has decided they know best, and we the people who elected them to office should not be allowed to rule ourselves," he said.

"It doesn't surprise me the judge would take that stance, that the DEQ is all-powerful and that the state Legislature has the right to grant unlimited power to an unelected bureaucrat. We will continue to fight, and we will take our revenge out at the polls."

Contact Keith Matheny: (313) 222-5021 or [email protected]

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