GUILFORD, Maine — A group of residents from 13 local communities gathered to learn about community-based rights over the weekend.
The New Hampshire-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund led a democracy school in Dexter on Friday and Saturday and then a workshop in Guilford on Sunday, which was attended by about 60 people.
“The work that we do is to assist communities as they exercise and assert their rights to self government,” said Gail Darrell, New England Community Organizer for the CELDF. “They learned the history of our governmental system, and from that history, they gathered knowledge in order to assert their rights locally.”
Many pins and signs protesting the proposed east-west corridor were present at Sunday’s workshop. Last week, neighboring Sangerville residents placed a six-month moratorium on any east-west corridor development.
Sangerville Town Manager Dave Pearson attended the school and workshop.
“People are actually talking to each other and debating. It’s a wonderful thing,” Pearson said of the workshop. “I took the democracy school and I didn’t think I would learn anything, but I learned quite a bit.”
Pearson said he learned that corporations have the same rights, if not more, than individuals.
“Does another entity have more rights than the people of a town? Right now, they apparently can say, ‘We have permits from the state, we can do this and we don’t care, even though you’re the people who live here and it’s your community,’” said Pearson.
The proposed corridor includes a 220-mile toll highway connecting Calais to Coburn Gore, making an east-west route from New Brunswick to Quebec. Cianbro chairman and CEO Peter Vigue, who has been a leading voice in favor of the route, has previously said the highway would avoid town centers and pass between Dover-Foxcroft and Dexter. He also has said that eminent domain will not be used in acquiring land for the project. Sangerville and Garland are two towns that lie between Dover-Foxcroft and Dexter.
Pearson said it’s up to individuals and community leaders to be involved and engaged in any east-west corridor development and not to rely on courts and state government.
“I think what we’ve been doing for the longest time is sort of trusting that the legal system and regulatory agencies are on our side,” he said. “What it seems to me is they’re not really on our side. What the local people think or want, they don’t care. I’ve been to a couple of Peter Vigue’s [conferences]. He says how it’s going to be good for us, but he’s very evasive about the questions that get asked. Frankly, I don’t find his arguments compelling about what the project brings to the area.”
Garland resident Matthew Newman said laws don’t favor people.
“I’m here because it should be as simple as going to your towns and taking a vote — Do you want this to go through your town? No? OK, it shouldn’t. But that’s not how the law works,” said Newman. “Right now, the law favors a corporate entity over you or I in our own town.”
Newman, who is on the Concerned Citizens of Garland Committee that meets regarding the east-west highway, said the school and workshop have been helpful.
“For me, this was a matter of understanding how to talk to other citizens of Garland who aren’t immediately on board [with a moratorium against east-west highway development] and explain it in a way they understand,” said Newman. “I can explain [now] how an ordinance like this isn’t going to impact them, it’s going to protect them. They can still cut their firewood, but it’s going to stop an outside corporate entity from doing something the town doesn’t want done.”
He said he has a template ordinance that can be reviewed by Garland officials. A special town meeting will be held in June or July regarding an ordinance against the east-west corridor.
Edie Vose of Sangerville, who helped organize the democracy school, said two schools were held in March and two more in October last year and more will be held in the future.
“I think it’s been an eye opener, even for people who’ve had formal study [in government],” said Vose. “These speakers have done a tremendous job in pulling interesting material and making it lively for people. It’s very engaging.”
Darrell said she enjoys seeing people engaged in discussion.
“It’s about governing yourselves where you live so you can protect the places that you love,” she said.