FORT WORTH -- Two years ago, hundreds of people packed City Hall and pressured the City Council to turn down a permit for a natural gas well site because it was 225 feet from houses.
Flash forward to 2010. The council has approved three permits in the last six months for gas sites that are even closer -- 160 to 200 feet. More are on the way.
"The easy stuff's done," Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman said.
While Fort Worth is already home to more than 1,000 natural gas wells, the city's chief gas inspector estimated in April that only 20 to 30 percent of the ultimate number of wells have been drilled.
That means 3,000 to 5,000 more are possible.
Wells are moving closer to residential areas in Northeast Tarrant County and Arlington as well. The Haltom City Council approved a site on McCullar Road, despite opposition from the Planning and Zoning Commission and concerns from some nearby residents about a frac pond on the site, after dozens of other residents turned out at a meeting to say they want to be paid for their gas production.
"It wasn't the largest crowd, but it was one of the larger ones," Mayor Bill Lanford said.
Another site, on Bewley Street, is a stone's throw from an elementary school. However, Birdville school officials spoke in favor of the site because the district will earn royalties from it, which will be used to pay for scholarships, Lanford said.
This month, the Arlington City Council granted a request to drill five wells in southwest Arlington, though one was 389 feet from a house. Though the city has a 600-foot distance requirement, the council approved the well after the driller presented signatures in favor from 73 percent of affected property owners.
In Fort Worth, the trend is affecting efforts to redevelop inner-city neighborhoods. Some residents say they're worried about the potential for air pollution and other side effects, and some are concerned by what they see as the gas companies' heavy-handed tactics.
On the other side, thousands of homeowners signed natural gas leases on their homes from 2006 to 2008, before the precipitous drop in natural gas prices. Most of those leases require the company to drill a well within two to five years. So gas companies are feeling pressure to find well sites before those leases expire. And with the recession, many residents are impatient to receive royalties, even if the payout is small.
"It's not going to get any easier," Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said.
Fort Worth requires wells to be at least 600 feet from "sensitive land uses" -- homes, schools, churches and the like. But it allows companies to drill as close as 300 feet if the company acquires permission from affected landowners, or if the City Council approves. Until 2008, the limit was 200 feet, and the city grandfathered "hundreds" of sites that gas companies had already bought, even if they haven't been drilled, said Rick Trice, the city's chief gas inspector.
Fort Worth's ordinance appears looser than some other area cities. Southlake and Grapevine both require 1,000-foot setbacks between wells and surrounding homes. Arlington has a 600-foot setback and allows waivers, but they have to win approval from 60 percent of affected owners and the City Council. In Haltom City, drilling is allowed only in industrial areas, unless the company first gets a zoning change.
There's another twist in Fort Worth's ordinance: Once a well site has been permitted, gas companies can apply for a pad site permit that makes it difficult to build or renovate homes and apartments within 300 feet of the site.
That provision caused Eddie Vanston some sleepless nights. He and his wife are working on a $3.6 million project to convert a warehouse into apartments or condominiums near where XTO Energy wants to drill.
"That deal doesn't happen if the well goes there," he said.
XTO also applied for a permit this year to put a gas site in the lot next to an old warehouse off South Main Street that the couple recently converted into loft apartments.
If the site had been permitted, the view from Rob Franklin's second-floor window would have been obscured, at least for some time, by the drilling rig's sound wall and floodlights.
"I can't imagine how it would be for the folks downstairs who have kids," he said.
Ultimately, XTO agreed to withdraw its application and drill beneath the area from another site about a half-mile away. XTO officials declined to comment for this article.
Vanston and other business owners in the South Main corridor say the case points out a conflict between two goals Fort Worth officials are pursuing: drilling for gas and revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods. The city has spent millions establishing "urban villages" like South Main that combine high-density housing with mass transit. This month, local officials approved $3 million for street improvements in the South Main area, and South Main is also one of the routes for a proposed streetcar line.
"I've had a number of these [drill sites] where it has ramifications for other areas," said Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks, who represents the area. "I hope it will be an example of how we really try to work with the drillers."
In other cases, companies have permission from all surrounding owners, but residents are still worried. Daniel Garcia lives across from a Chesapeake site at Macie Avenue and Northwest 23rd Street. Garcia said the noise from the drilling wasn't excessive, but now he's worried about potential air pollution and wonders why heavy trucks and bulldozers are digging a large pit.
"You don't know what the risk is," he said.
Across town, Chesapeake Energy has applied for a gas pad site on Bryant Irvin Road, within 280 feet of homes in the Lake Como neighborhood.
Some residents in Como and the nearby Ridglea town
"They think they can push whatever they want down in Como," said Herman Williams, who has lived in the area for 38 years.
The permit application shows four wells on the site, for instance. That puts most of the Ridglea town homes outside the 600-foot limit. But plans on file with the city show as many as 24 wells on the site, putting the town houses within the limit.
Julie Wilson, Chesapeake's vice president for the Barnett Shale region, said the company included information about the extra wells in an effort to be transparent.
Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram
See photo of gas well and frac pond near homes in Fort Worth