Barrington to vote on a Community Bill of Rights; Selectmen, town attorney say it is not legally enforceable
Gail Darrell, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund New Hampshire community organizer, noted that three NH communities around Newfound Lake also have similar articles on their town warrants this year, as a way to combat scenic ridge lines being taken over by wind turbines, with electricity bound for Boston and Connecticut.
When Barrington voters go to the polls on March 11, among the many decisions they will have to make is one on Article 25, which is on the warrant by petition. The aim of this article, according to organizers, is “to provide better protection for the town’s land and water resources in the face of growing commercial pressure to extract its groundwater and gravel in particular in recent years.”
The Barrington Waterways Protection Committee, or BWPC, drafted the warrant article, which reads, “Shall the Town of Barrington adopt an ordinance to Protect the Health, Safety and Welfare of River Ecosystems and residents of Barrington, New Hampshire by establishing a Community Bill of Rights,” the language of which is available at town hall and the library and posted online as “Petitioned Article” at http://barrington.nh.gov/Pages/BarringtonNH_Administrator/TM?
If this article is adopted, say petitioners, the ordinance enables Barrington to claim the right to self-government based on the state constitution, and any projects permitted by the state will require the consent of the community.
Cilia Bannenberg, a Greenhill Road resident, said that she and her neighbors were moved to action by the permitting of a gravel pit in the neighborhood.
“Something has to change. It seems so unfair that one group can impact so many different families. There are 100 families on Greenhill Road. It was the same with USA Springs,” said Bannenberg, saying that the ordinance aims to prevent corporations from taking water from Barrington and selling it, outlaws toxic waste disposal in town, and does not allow new mineral extraction operations.
Section 6 of the proposed Bill of Rights Ordinance says, “Corporations are not legal persons with more rights than real persons in Barrington.”
Section 9 says, “The right to self-government should be explicitly stated at the state and federal levels.”
According to Bannenberg, existing permitted gravel pits in Barrington would be exempted from this ordinance. The gravel pit off Greenhill Road, she noted, “is not operating yet” and thus might be challenged legally, if it went ahead with gravel extractions.
At the Barrington Deliberative Session on Feb. 1, the Board of Selectmen, who are on record as unanimously opposed to the Bill of Rights, as written, tried to amend the warrant article as follows:
“Despite the fact that the town’s attorney indicates there is no statutory authority to adopt or enforce portions of the proposed ordinance and that some provisions are contrary to the state and federal constitutions, shall the Town of Barrington adopt an Ordinance to Protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of River Ecosystems and Residents of Barrington, New Hampshire by establishing a Community Bill of Rights, and deleting from the proposed ordinance Section 5 (enforcement) and Section 10 (severability)?”
This amendment went to a ballot vote which then resulted in a tie vote, and thus died.
Town Administrator John Scruton said Barrington’s attorney, Jae Whitelaw, is of the opinion that the ordinance is at odds with state law.
“The selectmen believe in protecting the environment, but zoning and state law is the way to go,” said Scruton.
Scruton said that he has spoken to Nottingham’s town administrator, who said their community bill of rights ordinance had never been challenged, but this may be because it is not enforced.
A public forum on the ordinance was held in the Barrington Elementary School Annex on Monday evening, and attracted around a dozen residents in addition to BWPC organizers and speakers. Among the guest speakers was Barnstead Selectman Gordon Preston. It was he who helped steer a similar ordinance onto the books in his town, after being alarmed by Nottingham’s expensive legal battle to prevent USA Springs from extracting water on a commercial scale for an overseas market.
“This was a defensive move,” said Preston, contacted last week. “I saw what was going on in Nottingham. Many states are hurting for water. Water is a major commodity, like oil. If you have no defense, you’re screwed.”
Barnstead’s community rights ordinance was adopted by residents in 2006, and so far has not been challenged. To do so, claimed Preston, would “be a public-relations nightmare for a corporation.”
Preston, noting that Barrington was an SB2 town, rather than one which holds a town meeting, suggested it would be more difficult to pass the Barrington ordinance, as it takes a lot of public discussion and education – a process that took nine months in Barnstead.
Pete Martin, a community activist from Plymouth, said a rights-based ordinance had passed in his community in 2012, with the threat of the Northern Pass pass project, and others to follow, being the catalyst that brought people together.
“The community bill of rights takes a fundamentally different approach to protecting our town’s resources and public health, based at the community level, rather than relying on state and local regulatory laws which don’t protect our community from degradation of our environment,” said Cilia Bannenberg, spokeswoman for the Barrington Waterways Protection Committee sponsoring the forum.
Gail Darrell, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund New Hampshire community organizer, gave a brief history of her national organization, which was first organized in 1995.
The trigger, she said, was when small towns in Pennsylvania were seeking legal help to fight factory farms coming into their communities. Language was developed to create a community bill of rights, partly based on language in South Dakota’s state constitution.
“On its face, it challenges (NH) state law, but our state constitution says government is with the consent of the people, so this is nothing too radical,” said Darrell.
“You can only change the law when people recognize the illegality. The civil rights movement had to break the law to drive change,” she added. “We are challenging the law that protects corporations but not individuals.”
She noted that three NH communities around Newfound Lake also have similar articles on their town warrants this year, as a way to combat scenic ridge lines being taken over by wind turbines, with electricity bound for Boston and Connecticut.
Barrington resident Jim Conley said his research indicated that property values in an area of major disruption, such as gravel mining, drop by an average of 30 percent in value.
“Where are your rights? Allowing resource extraction in a residential neighborhood is not looking out for the people,” said Conley.
Chris and Gail Mills from Nottingham said their community passed a community bill of rights a couple of years ago, in reaction to the threat of massive groundwater extraction by USA Springs. It passed at town meeting with a 60 percent majority, despite selectmen and the town’s attorney being opposed to it.
Chris Mills added that now, every time they hear of a prospective bottling company or financiers checking out the area, they sent out a copy of the CBR ordinance as a deterrent.
Speaking after the forum, Bannenberg expressed a strong hope that Barrington voters would approve Warrant Article 25 on March 11.
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