Sangerville passes rights-based ordinance, by a vote of 86-40

By Mike Lange
Staff Writer

    SANGERVILLE — The town of Sangerville made history last week by becoming the first Maine community to enact a rights-based ordinance (RBO) aimed squarely at the proposed east-west highway.

NE-SangFullHouse-DC-PO-39Observer photo/Mike Lange

    FULL HOUSE — Every chair was filled and people were standing in the back of the Sangerville fire station for the Sept. 18 special town meeting. The rights-based ordinance (RBO) was approved by a vote of 86-40.

    After moderator Paul Davis was sworn in to chair the meeting, he remarked that he also presided at school district budget meetings in Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford this year. “They only had one-third of the size of this crowd,” Davis said.
    The RBO article passed easily by a vote of 86-40, but the debate was thorough — and occasionally testy — on both sides. Those who favored the RBO said that residents needed to chart their own destiny, and that individual rights should take priority over corporate interests.
    The rights-based ordinance, technically named the community bill of rights ordinance, would prohibit “any corporation or governmental agency to engage in land acquisition for, or engage in the construction of, any private or public-private transportation and distribution center.”
    The language was drafted by the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania group that has helped enact and defend other RBOs across the country.

NE-SangLegalAdv-DC-PO-39Observer photo/Mike Lange

    LEGAL ADVICE — Sangerville Selectmen Bill Rowe confers with attorney Lynne Williams prior to the start of the Sept. 18 special town meeting.

    Jerry Peters, chairman of the Sangerville Planning Board, recalled dealing with state agencies over a water quality issue 10 years ago. “We had a public hearing on it, and I was told by a state official that it was ‘none of your business — you’re out of your jurisdiction.’ I never want to be told that again in my lifetime,” Peters said. “I support this ordinance. It’s good for the town and good for the environment.”
    Dyan McCarthy-Clark said that the people who created the ordinance “put in some extraordinary effort and were very thoughtful. I want to thank all of you for making sure we have the opportunity to stop this kind of thing from happening in our community.”
    Opponents said they were concerned that the RBO wouldn’t withstand a legal challenge and that some of the language was ambiguous. Questions came up about whether a ban on the corridor would also prevent new utility lines from being constructed in town. Attorney Lynne Williams, the town’s legal counsel for the RBO, said it would not. “The amendment I recommended to the Board of Selectmen makes it clear that this ordinance would only apply to the corridor,” Williams said.
    Brydie Armstrong’s first attempt to read a legal opinion on the neighboring town of Parkman’s proposed RBO was met with some resistance, but Davis permitted her to read a summary of the letter.
    “This ordinance appears to be a strong political statement supporting self-government and the environment, which is tailored to prevent public and public-private transportation distribution corridors, but may be much broader in scope,” said the letter from Gerald S. Nessman of Austin Law Offices in Dexter. “In my opinion, it is unlikely that this ordinance would survive a legal challenge in state or federal courts.”
Nessman’s letter said that legal expenses to defend the ordinance could be substantial; and if it went all the way to the Supreme Court “it would amount to several hundred thousand dollars.” The attorney recommended that Parkman consider a stronger zoning ordinance as an alternative to an RBO.
    But Williams said that if Sangerville’s ordinance was ever challenged in court, “It would not expose the town to any damages whatsoever. It would be the appeal of an ordinance and the court would say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It would only cost the town legal fees,” said Williams. She said that any notion that such a case would go to the Supreme Court and potentially cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars “is way out of the ballpark.”
    Selectman Bill Rowe said that while people are asking what the ordinance can or cannot do, “nobody has mentioned the appeals process. You can come before the Planning Board and ask for an exception dealing with your specific case.”

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