EAST SANGERVILLE, Maine — When an article to enact a 180-day moratorium on any permitting related to the east-west highway came up at the Sangerville annual town meeting earlier this year, it passed by a margin of 149-3.
Still, opponents of the $2.1 billion limited access highway have pointed out that a moratorium is only a stopgap measure.
So with the assistance of the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, or CELDF, a group of Sangerville residents have outlined what they feel is an effective tactic to permanently halt the highway’s progress: a community bill of rights ordinance.
Around 60 people attended a public forum at the East Sangerville Grange on June 21 to hear a presentation on the proposed legislation, also known as a rights-based ordinance, or RBO. Volunteers also circulated petitions, asking the Sangerville Board of Selectmen to hold a special town meeting to consider the ordinance.
The petition needs signatures from 10 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial elections. Sangerville has 678 voters out of a population of 1,343.
Basically, an RBO makes a fundamental change in the way towns handle state and federal regulatory procedures. The premise is that individuals have a final say over what corporations can do, and state or federal laws can’t override local ordinances.
All three selectmen attended the forum along with Town Manager David Pearson. Selectman Bill Rowe said that any idea “that a corporation has more rights than an individual is clearly unconstitutional.” He said that premise “goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.”
One of the forum organizers, Cynthia Hall, explained that many residents “were extremely distressed about the east-west highway after they found out that it could pass right through Route 23, near the Dexter town line.”
While praising the town’s moratorium, Hall asked, “What’s going to happen after the 180 days are up?”
Edie Vose of Sangerville was one of several people who attended a “democracy school” hosted by CELDF earlier this year, and said that the proposed ordinances “give us choices that carry the weight of law.” As things stand now, Vose said, “Towns don’t have a legal way to stop it” because state and federal laws often pre-empt local ordinances.
Diane Boretos, a conservation biologist, cited Article 1 of the Maine Constitution as the primary basis for an RBO: “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”
As things stand now, Boretos said, “We, the people of Sangerville, have fewer rights than the federal government or a corporation.”
Hall added that under the proposed community bill of rights, Sangerville residents “would decide what kinds of infrastructure projects the town needs. Expansion of infrastructure that contributes to an unhealthy environment does not fit with our vision of the community.”
Proponents of the east-west highway, including Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue, have maintained that the 220-mile road from Eastport to Coburn Gore would be a huge economic boost for the state. In addition to decreasing the distance needed for goods to be shipped in and out of state, the route would attract more tourists from Atlantic Canada to central and western Maine and generate a considerable amount of tax revenue to the state.
According to the highway’s website, there will be six interchanges: Calais, I-95, Route 15, Route 23, Route 201 and Routes 16-27. But Vigue has also stated that no land would be taken by eminent domain.
In addition to Sangerville, however, Monson, Dexter and Charleston have also enacted a moratorium targeting the east-west highway. Pearson said that if enough towns on the proposed route take the next step and pass a community bill of rights ordinance, “We can protect each other.”
Organizers are shooting for a late August or early September special town meeting; and a follow-up public forum will be held at the South Sangerville Grange on Saturday, July 20.
More information is available at www.celdf.org, www.eastwestme.com and www.sangervillemaine.org.