Some years ago, my wife brought home a bumper sticker that read, “No, you can’t have my rights. I’m still using them.” We never did put it on our car. Maybe we should have.
We’re among a small number of rural Mainers who lost a right to have a voice in our communities’ futures. We live in a part of Maine’s Unorganized Territory that overlaps the state’s vast expedited permitting area, the place where large wind projects are fast-tracked under a law created in 2008.
Last month, we were back in Augusta with our neighbors and other Unorganized Territory residents for the second year in a row. We’re working to regain access to a process that was taken from us, perhaps unwittingly, by the Maine Legislature.
When the Legislature rewrote the rules for siting large wind projects, it treated some Unorganized Territory residents differently than all other Mainers. Exclusively for wind developments, it cut the sole connection we had to the body that serves as our planning and zoning authority, the Land Use Planning Commission.
By eliminating our means to participate in how our communities proceed with this type of development, the Legislature made us second-class citizens. We’re the only people in the state — less than 1 percent of Mainers — who’ve been statutorily denied this basic right to process.
Though it was a law about wind siting that marginalized us, any relation to wind power ends there. The real issue is this: Should the state ever eliminate a basic right of its citizens simply to give economic advantage to a few corporate interests, regardless of the industry involved?
Last year, we asked the Legislature to take a simple action to restore just treatment to our communities. A bill that would do this, LD 616, was supported by a bipartisan majority of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. It went on to pass the House, also with bipartisan support.
In a close vote, the Maine Senate sent it back to the committee for another look. The bill was rewritten to address the concerns voiced by some opponents. Then last month, for the second time, LD 616 got bipartisan majority support from the energy committee in an 8-5 vote. Next, it goes back to the House again.
Support has come from legislators across the political spectrum. They’ve taken the time to understand the details and consider what’s at stake. They recognize that the rights of Mainers are not a political issue. Our rights are nonpartisan, and having them eliminated so casually sets an unsettling precedent that should disturb us all.
Those opposing us have posed various arguments, some of which make sense only if the facts are ignored. Not surprisingly, the strongest opposition comes from well-funded corporate interests, which have a financial motive in seeing our rights permanently withheld.
LD 616 is about a Maine resident’s basic rights, period. It’s about having access to a fair and meaningful process. It’s about having a say in matters that might directly and substantially impact a person and his or her family. Most important, it’s about the ability of powerful corporate and special interests to divest residents of their rights through the legislative process.
Unorganized Territory residents didn’t give up their rights when they made their homes in the state’s most rural areas. We’re not asking for any new powers or authority that we didn’t already have six years ago.
We should have a right to a say in the futures of our communities, just as over 99 percent of Mainers still do, including the residents and property owners in the larger part of the Unorganized Territory not affected by the 2008 law. We’re small in number, but justice shouldn’t depend on your number.
Soon, the entire Legislature will have the opportunity to right this significant wrong. Hopefully, they’ll take the time to learn the facts. Hopefully, as many Maine legislators already have, they’ll cast their vote for just treatment of all Maine residents.
Maybe it’s time to rummage around for that old bumper sticker and put it to use, because frankly, no, you can’t have my rights. I’m still using them.
Alan Michka is a resident of Somerset County’s Lexington Township in Maine’s Unorganized Territory.