Asserting home rule — Corporate personhood threatened by rights-based ordinances


Michelle Sanborn, the president and coordinator of the New Hampshire Community Rights Network who also represents the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, holds a copy of the New Hampshire Constitution, which forms the basis for rights-based ordinances. Sanborn, a resident of Alexandria, initiated an RBO for that town, and assisted in crafting the ordinance that Ashland residents will be voting on next Tuesday. Behind her is the Alexandria Town Hall. (Tom Caldwell, Laconia Daily Sun)


ASHLAND — The Northern Pass hydroelectric project, like the prospect of wind towers on area mountaintops, has fueled an interest in rights-based ordinances, which empower communities to set limits on development that residents feel would adversely impact their health, safety, and welfare.

Whether such ordinances are legal in New Hampshire is an open question that has yet to be tested in court. A proposed constitutional amendment would settle the question by inserting the right to local self-government into the New Hampshire Constitution.

Plymouth recently adopted a rights-based ordinance, and Ashland has a petitioned RBO article on the Town Meeting ballot, both aimed at stopping projects like Northern Pass.

Opponents of the ordinance point to the denial of Eversource’s application for a permit from the state’s Site Evaluation Committee as evidence that the current system works, and say a rights-based ordinance can have unintended consequences and potentially pit towns and neighbors against one another.

Similarly, a House committee that heard testimony on Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 19, that would recognize RBOs, has deemed it inexpedient to legislate, which would effectively kill it instead of forwarding it on to voters for a decision.

Even without constitutional protection, rights-based ordinances are effective in fighting “corporate personhood” — the view that companies such as Eversource have a right to do what they wish, where they wish — according to Michelle Sanborn of Alexandria, who serves as president and coordinator of the New Hampshire Community Rights Network and represents the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Since persuading her town to adopt an RBO, she has assisted residents of other communities, including Ashland, in drafting their own rights-based ordinances.

Sanborn said Ashland would be the 12th community in the state to adopt an RBO. There are almost 200 such ordinances across the nation, she said.

“Here in New Hampshire, RBOs have been effective in stopping four industrial wind turbine projects and one corporate water withdrawal project,” she said. “Four communities are using them to oppose Northern Pass, and four new communities have expressed an interest in using RBOs to secure their right to decide about fossil fuel pipeline and liquified natural gas storage projects.”

She noted that Nottingham has held off USA Springs and its investors for 10 years after enacting an RBO. The company had gone through the standard regulatory process and was ready to tap into the town’s aquifer when passage of an RBO stopped the process.

Her own town of Alexandria, along with other Newfound/Mount Cardigan towns, has used RBOs to hold off industrial wind projects for the past four years.

Ashland’s ordinance

Each ordinance can be crafted to meet that particular community’s needs, Sanborn said. Ashland’s would prohibit land acquisition for “unsustainable” energy systems, defined in the ordinance as energy systems controlled by state and federal energy policies, rather than community policies; industrial-scale water and wind power that is not municipally owned and operated; and non-renewable energy sources or those that produce toxins or substances that are injurious to humans or ecosystems. The ordinance provides exceptions for non-commercial energy produced for on-site use.

One of the problems some people have with the ordinance is that, since state and federal government regulates virtually all power, the ordinance effectively defines any power source as “unsustainable” unless it is used on-site. There is an exception for utility companies operating under contract with the town, and those previously operating in Ashland.

Other provisions of Ashland’s ordinance ban toxic waste disposal and exploratory data collection, engineering and geotechnical work associated with an unsustainable energy system.

Sanborn said the ordinance does not require the town to enforce its provisions if the community decides it desires a particular energy project.

“What the RBO does is give the community a decision-making seat at the table, as a matter of right, that they do not currently have through any state regulatory process,” she said.

The idea behind rights-based ordinances is that both the United States and New Hampshire constitutions assert the right of self-government, but New Hampshire law operates on a top-down basis, saying that any municipal rights derive from enabling legislation by the state. Local control is a myth under such a system.

Corporations are able to navigate through the laws and regulations to achieve what they desire, and towns and cities can only impose restrictions. If a town wants to stop a project, it has to rely on the courts.

A rights-based ordinance bypasses the judicial system by bringing the decision to the local level.

Yet detractors argue that it will end up in court, anyway. Mardean Badger, in a letter to The Laconia Daily Sun, said, “The proposed ordinance may set neighbor against neighbor, townspeople against the town, the town against the state, and the town against the federal government. ... The Water and Sewer Department could be sued for filing for permits from NHDES or the EPA or for simply following state and federal regulations. You could be sued for cutting down trees on your property because your neighbor could claim that you are destroying an ecosystem or violating the rights of living things.”

Home rule

During hearings in Concord on CACR 19, which asserts that, “All government of right originates from the people, is founded in their consent, and instituted for the general good,” the constitutional amendment faced opposition from legislators who reminded speakers that New Hampshire is not a home rule state. Having a 400-member House of Representatives ensures that people have an adequate voice in setting policy, they said.

Sanborn testified, “This is a people’s amendment. It brings clarity to the people, the courts, and businesses. It gives people a right to protect themselves.”

Passing the amendment would give rights-based ordinance legal status, allowing people to challenge development that they believe would adversely affect their town. It would take the approval process out of the regulatory arena and make it a constitutional matter, proponents said.

Should the legislature pass the amendment, it still would have to be approved by two-thirds of the state’s residents.

A subcommittee voted, 3-2, to recommend passage of the bill, but when it went before the full Municipal and County Government Committee, Vice Chairman Franklin Sterling moved to label it as inexpedient to legislate.

Rep. Steve Rand (D-Plymouth) objected because the committee had not had a chance to offer its recommendation, but the chairman allowed the motion, leading to an 11-8 vote to “ITL it,” according to Vincent Paul Migliore (R-Bridgewater), a sponsor of the bill, who was the only Republican to support the measure.

“Obviously, it was predetermined that he would do that,” Migliore said. “The motion was seconded, so the discussion in committee was only on the ITL, rather than the report by the subcommittee.”

The bill was on the agenda for action by the full House on March 7 before that body recessed early because of the snowstorm. It is scheduled for action when the House reconvenes on March 15.

The House calendar states both the majority opinion and the minority view.

“Passage of this amendment would allow one community to forbid a highway construction or expansion in their community although the surrounding communities desired it,” the majority wrote. “When Planning Boards consider projects with ‘regional impact’ they consult neighboring communities that will be affected. This amendment would render that purpose impractical since a community would no longer need to consider how a project would affect their neighbors. ... The effect might be different rules from community to community relating to leash laws, taxi cabs, highway uses with different weight limits, municipal sales taxes, firearm controls and a myriad of other quality of life provisions guaranteed to us by the state.”

The minority wrote, “[I]t does NOT allow the establishment of ordinances that would remove or weaken any existing protections or rights of natural persons currently secured by local, state or federal law (such as second amendment rights). ... Within narrow limits, it gives towns the flexibility to address matters of local concern without needing state enabling legislation. The minority believes that this substantive matter must be decided by the people themselves as the ultimate stakeholders in our system of government, through the popular vote of the amendment process.”

Sanborn commented, “Almost a dozen towns over the past decade have enacted RBOs because the right of local, community self-government is an inherent and unalienable right expressed within the Declaration of Independence and carried over into state constitutions. If CACR 19 is not approved by the House to move to the Senate, then people are being denied the right to amend their own Bill of Rights, but that hasn’t stopped any towns so far and, if anything, it will inspire more towns to enact RBOs to correct the balance of power.

“This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”

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