Thornton, New Hampshire Rejects Community Bill of Rights To Ban Land Acquisition for Unsustainable Energy Systems

by: Posted on: April 02, 2013

By Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund,

(March 16, 2013) Saturday, residents at Town Meeting in Thornton, New Hampshire (Population 1,800) rejected an ordinance to establish a Community Bill of Rights and prohibit corporations from engaging “in land acquisition necessary for the siting or construction of unsustainable energy systems” by a vote of 57:21.

The ordinance would have recognized rights to pure water, clean air, a sustainable energy future, a “fundamental and inalienable right to protect and preserve the scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the town,” and that the people of Thornton at all times enjoy and retain “an inalienable and indefeasible right to self-governance in the community where they reside.” It also recognizes that natural communities and ecosystems have “inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the Town,” and that “residents of the town shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights on behalf of those natural communities and ecosystems.”

When concerned Thornton residents heard about an energy project coming through their rural community with high voltage transmission lines atop 80’-140’ steel towers, known as the Northern Pass, they called CELDF to help stop the unsustainable project.

Early in 2011, alarmed at the ease with which regulatory agencies approve industrial energy projects, residents shared their intentions with their selectmen of bringing a Community Bill of Rights to Town Meeting for a vote. They began distributing informational packets to educate townspeople about the potential impacts to the local tourist economy, aesthetic value, property values and health, in preparation for Town Meeting.

Community members formed the organization Thornton Has Rights, circulated petitions and submitted more than the required number of signatures to place the Community Bill of Rights onto the Warrant for Town Meeting. They were following in the footsteps of their neighbors in Grafton, New Hampshire, where a similar ordinance was passed last week. Plymouth, Sugar Hill and Easton, all enacted Community Bills of Rights last year in response to the Northern Pass.

The general provisions of the proposed Ordinance:

1) Establish a Community Bill of Rights enumerating a right to pure water, clean air, rights of natural communities and ecosystems, a sustainable energy future, and local community self-government;

2) Make it unlawful in Thornton “for a corporation or any person using a corporation, to engage in land acquisition necessary for the construction of an unsustainable energy system, or to engage in construction or siting of any structure to be used in the operation of an unsustainable energy system”:

3) Remove “certain legal powers and privileges from any corporation that violates the prohibitions of this Ordinance””

4) Nullify permits ostensibly “legalizing” the violation of rights secured by this Ordinance:

The specific prohibitions that would have been enacted by the ordinance are justified on grounds that such prohibitions are necessary to secure and protect those rights enumerated. This exercise of local police powers is new to many local governments, which have been led to believe they have authority only to administer state regulations and may not protect the community with more strict measures than the state allows.

The Thornton selectmen were advised not to support the ordinance by the town lawyer. Long time resident and selectman Steve Morton attended an informational meeting held at the town library earlier in the week, where he affirmed his position to oppose the ordinance at Town Meeting. He told organizers of the event that he could not challenge state law while serving on the Board, since he felt it was a conflict of duty. Although it is also the duty of selectmen to protect the health, safety and welfare of town residents, Morton did not view the Northern Pass as anything threatening or unhealthy. He said he thought everyone would get used to the towers eventually.

One voter publicly chastised the selectmen for not coming up with a plan.

The group plans to run the Ordinance again next year.

Copyright, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Reprinted with permission.

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