ALBANY, N.Y.—New York's highest court agreed Thursday to hear appeals from a drilling company and a farmer challenging municipal bans on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

The Court of Appeals, without comment, accepted two cases where lower courts upheld bans in the upstate towns of Middlefield in Otsego County and Dryden, near Ithaca.

If the case is handled routinely, it will be argued and decided next spring, court spokesman Gary Spencer said. In requesting top court review, nobody has yet asked to expedite the case.

New York hasn't decided whether to lift a 5-year-old moratorium on fracking. State health officials are still studying its effects.

A midlevel court unanimously concluded in May that state mining and drilling law doesn't trump the authority of local governments to control land use. More than 50 New York municipalities have banned gas drilling in the past few years, and more than 100 have enacted moratoriums on drilling activities.

"The plain language of this provision prohibits municipalities from enacting laws or ordinances 'relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries,'" Justice Karen Peters wrote. "The zoning ordinance at issue, however, does not seek to regulate the details or procedure of the oil, gas and solution mining industries. Rather, it simply establishes permissible and prohibited uses of land within the town for the purpose of regulating land generally.


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Norse's challenge to Dryden's drilling ban has been closely watched by an industry hoping to drill in New York's piece of the Marcellus Shale formation using the technology known as fracking, which frees gas from deep rock deposits by injecting wells with chemical-laced water at high pressure. The rest of the formation is located under parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Environmentalists and a group of Dryden residents fear the drilling could threaten water supplies and public health.

A dairy farmer is challenging the Middlefield restriction, saying the town is preventing her from making money from the gas wells planned on her land. The farmer, Jennifer Huntington, said Thursday that her case is about protecting property rights from unreasonable municipal interference.

The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York said its 77,000 members were ecstatic that the lower court decisions "have wreaked havoc" in their towns and that municipal officials aren't equipped to decide issues of state and national interest in energy production that they said is clean.

Brad Gill, executive director of the Industry Oil & Gas Association, said the group is pleased to know the issue will get a dispassionate hearing by the top court. Local bans on oil and gas exploration violate state law and "create a patchwork public policy" and regulatory uncertainty that discourages business, he said.

The Community Environmental Defense Council, a nonprofit law firm, said two other trial courts have upheld municipal authority to prohibit drilling and no state courts have ruled otherwise.

Deborah Cipolla-Dennis, a Dryden resident, said they'd gathered 1,600 petition signatures against fracking and want to preserve the rural community's character. "I'd like the case to be over, but by the court taking this, it recognizes that this is a statewide issue and that the ruling needs to be statewide," she said.