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Northern Pass a likely target of ordinances

Sunday News Correspondent

January 27. 2018 9:41PM
As now planned, a portion of the Northern Pass transmission lines would be buried along Plymouth's Main Street. Plymouth voters will decide at a special town meeting Wednesday whether to adopt a Rights-Based Ordinance designed to challenge the legal power of corporations, which can now proceed with projects despite local opposition. (BEA LEWIS/Sunday News Correspondent)

PLYMOUTH - The push is on to adopt Rights-Based Ordinances in two Grafton County towns with Northern Pass the probable target.

Plymouth voters will attend a special town meeting Wednesday to decide whether to adopt a Rights-Based Ordinance (RBO) designed to challenge the legal power of corporations. In neighboring Ashland, residents will have the chance to discuss an RBO at the deliberative session of their SB2 town meeting Feb. 3, and then vote March 13.

"The question is who has the right to decide what happens in our town," said Plymouth resident Richard Hage.

As it now stands, Hage said, corporations are given "personhood rights" under state and federal laws and can override a community's attempt to protect itself from corporate projects within its boundaries. According to Hage, an RBO confronts this structure of corporate legal privilege by asserting the community's right of local self-governance.

"We're trying to return those rights to the folks in the local community, who are closest to it. The RBO movement is trying to put self-regulation back where it belongs," he said.

While conceding that Plymouth has been "quite animated" in its opposition to Northern Pass - the proposed 192-mile transmission line project that will carry hydropower from Canada - Hage said adoption of an RBO has the broader effect of maintaining local decision-making on issues of health, safety, welfare and protection of the environment.

"Northern Pass is certainly on people's minds, and this is one effort that would help prevent our Main Street from being dug up," said Hage.

As now planned, a portion of the Northern Pass transmission lines would be buried down Plymouth's Main Street, a process that could take as long as six months.

When the town updated its own utilities, two businesses couldn't survive the downturn in traffic and folded, Hage said.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray said an application and permitting process is already in place for such projects and that Northern Pass is still involved in that process at this time. The company is willing to work with any communities to help lessen the impact construction will have on traffic and related issues and already has signed memorandums of understandings with some municipalities, Murray said.

Michelle Sanborn of Alexandria is the state coordinator for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has partnered with residents and municipal leaders in several communities to draft RBOs. She said 11 communities in the state have already adopted them. In 2006, Barnstead became the first municipality in the nation to adopt an ordinance that prohibited water extractions by asserting the rights of residents over the decision-making process.

According to Sanborn, Barnstead's vote to adopt an RBO was a proactive measure spurred after the state issued a 10-year large groundwater extraction permit to USA Springs Inc. in Nottingham, and the municipality had spent about a quarter of a million in tax dollars in an effort to keep the water bottling company out. The towns of Barrington and Nottingham followed suit.

Alexandria, Atkinson, Barrington, Danbury, Easton, Grafton and Sugar Hill also have adopted RBOs. In 2012, Plymouth adopted an RBO but it was later declared to be advisory only as a result of a procedural error - just a summary had been printed in the warrant instead of the entire ordinance. When residents gather at the Plymouth High School Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday they'll find printed copies of all nine pages.

However, none of the RBOs now in place have faced a court challenge.

North Country lawyer Alan Baker, who ardently opposes Northern Pass, said he has no ax to grind with the grass-roots, self-rule motives of RBO supporters, but believes their efforts are better served by bringing RBO sentiments directly to the attention of state legislators who can work to modify existing state law or propose a Constitutional amendment, if they concur.

"I just think their methods of trying to effect global change at the municipal level by proposing local ordinances that conflict with state law won't work in practice," he said.

As a general rule, Baker said, federal and state law take precedence over municipal ordinances and regulations when they are in conflict.

"My 40 years of legal experience tells me that conflicts between state law and local municipal regulation is not a good thing. It often leads to wasteful disputes, litigation and, God forbid, staggering attorneys' fees for both the winners and losers alike. Often both sides lose in monetary terms."

Adopting an RBO does not mandate that a town must enforce it, Sanborn said, and communities that have them on the books can still benefit if a corporate entity that might be considering a project in a community perceives an RBO as an obstacle, and decides to move on.

Rep. Vince Migliore, R-Bridgewater, sent a letter to community leaders in Alexandria, Ashland, Bridgewater, Bristol and Grafton (the five towns in Grafton District 9), urging them to hold community educational forums on RBOs.

A member of the House Municipal and County Government Committee, Migliore will be hearing a bill, CACR 19, that proposes to amend the state Constitution to allow the enactment of local laws to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents. He said he wants to hear the views of constituents.

Speaking during a meeting of the Ashland Board of Selectmen last month, Migliore said amending the Constitution was needed to give RBOs teeth.

"An RBO may or may not give you the protection that you expect. It depends on how it is worded and needs to be tailored for each community," he said.

Tejasinha Sivalingam of Ashland, who helped get the issue on the warrant by petition, said for him, adoption of an RBO is a peaceable method of reforming the government made necessary as all means of redress have become ineffectual.

"I don't want my children growing up in a community that is jeopardizing healthy soil and water," he said.

Adopting an RBO will give residents the right to decide whether a project has reached a threshold that impacts the health, safety, welfare and environment of the community. That question, he said, needs to be answered by local people.

The House Municipal and County Government Committee will hold a public hearing on CACR 19 at 2 p.m. Feb. 6 in Room 301 of the Legislative Office Building.

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