CAMBRIDGE, Maine — Voters rejected a proposed ordinance prohibiting land acquisition for transportation and distribution corridors within town boundaries by a vote of 63-29 at the annual town meeting on March 1. The ordinance would have blocked development of a proposed statewide east-west corridor through the Somerset County town.
Cambridge is one of several towns in Maine to consider a community rights based ordinance aimed at halting east-west corridor development, according to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund which drafted the proposal. Sangerville and Parkman voters approved such ordinances while Charleston voted to table the issue in a special town meeting in December 2013.
According to Cambridge Town Clerk Carol Laplant, the town meeting attendance was “the most I have ever seen” in her 12 years in office. Article six, regarding the Community Bill of Rights Ordinance, was debated for more than two hours, causing the meeting to last over five hours.
The town selectmen opposed the ordinance and provided attendees a written statement of their reasons. Their reasons relied on the town’s legal counsel, Amanda Meader of Maine Municipal Association, who wrote in an email to town officials that the proposed ordinance conflicts with existing law in that a local ordinance cannot take away a corporation’s right to buy land, deem permits and licenses issued by state and federal government to be invalid, take away a corporation’s legally recognized “personhood,” or preempt state or federal law. Meader also stated that no Maine court has ruled on the validity of rights-based ordinances such as the one proposed in Cambridge.
Laplant added that, according to the town’s insurance carrier, also Maine Municipal Association, it looked like the Community Bill of Rights Ordinance wasn’t an issue in which MMA could insure the town’s defense.
Maine Municipal Association is a voluntary membership organization offering an array of professional services to municipalities and other local governmental entities in Maine, according to its website.
Ron Strouse, the newly re-elected first selectman, said that although most people attending were not in favor of having an east-west corridor in town, there were too many “hidden things” in the proposed ordinance. These things, according to Cambridge resident Michael Watson, are the endangerment of landowners, the rights of nature over people and the precedence of current land use ordinances.
Watson believes that the town of Cambridge is a public-private partnership in that its assets are the property of individuals. While corporations protect their individual investors, Cambridge doesn’t have the same protection, and its residents’ land can be forfeited if damages are awarded, in his opinion.
Regarding the rights of nature, Watson argued that the proposed ordinance places nature in the same position as corporations and provides nature with more clout than it needs.
The effect of this ordinance on Cambridge’s current land use ordinances also worried Watson. “It’s too ambiguous,” Watson said. “While it says it’s only for the east-west corridor, it pertains to everything — our roads, our utilities, our subdivisions. If it is passed, it would be an absolute prohibition and it becomes superior to our present ordinances.”
Watson said that the present road, shore land zoning and especially the subdivision ordinances would be ruled inconsistent. “Our present subdivision ordinance allows roadways, pipelines, utilities and transmission lines to be constructed. These are the very things that the proposed ordinance prohibits.”
Local residents contacted Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, or CELDF, when they learned that plans to build the east-west corridor included a route that could come through their Somerset County town, according to a CELDF press release. Following attendance at a community-organized CELDF Democracy School, neighbors came together to finalize a draft of an ordinance focused on the right to self-governance.
While Watson remains opposed to the east-west corridor, and attended early meetings held by CELDF, a Pennsylvania group, Watson considers the Community Bill of Rights Ordinance a knee-jerk reaction and instead advocates a change in constitutional law.
The community will review the town’s response to Cambridge’s Community Bill of Rights Ordinance and continue discussions about potential next steps at a meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 6, at the Town Office on Ripley Road.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Michael Watson was a selectman. He is not a selectman, but a resident of Cambridge.