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Wells Residents Consider Water Rights Ordinance (MPBN radio)

Susan Sharon, Maine Public Radio Network, May 11, 2009

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If you’ve been listening to the radio lately, you may have heard an advertisement promoting the economic benefits of Poland Spring and urging residents of Wells to vote against a local ordinance that would ban commercial water extraction in the town.

Wells voters will decide at a Saturday town meeting whether they want to join the communities of Shapleigh and Newfield in adopting the so-called “rights-based” ordinance that supporters say gives the environment more rights than corporations.

The Wells Water Rights and Local Self Government Ordinance begins with the premise that “water is essential for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – both for people and for the ecological systems which give life to all species.” From there it declares that water should be held in public trust, and it prohibits corporations from engaging in water withdrawals. Passage of the ordinance would make it illegal for any corporation or its officers to cause damage to an ecosystem and it would give the town and any resident of the town the ability to seek injunctive, compensatory and punitive relief for damages.

“This type of approach is reflective of a paradigm change that’s happening in our society and our culture around how we want to interface with the economy and the environment and the future,” says Emily Posner of the group Defending Water for Life, which supports the proposed Wells ordinance.

While Posner does not live in Wells herself, she’s been active in getting Maine residents to embrace this kind of response to corporations’ influence in the local economy. “We’re seeing people moving away from big box stores and trying to revitalize their local economy, and this is a similar type of approach that’s happening through the political sphere, where we’re trying to re-localize our political infastructure so that we as communities have the right to decide what will actually happen within our town borders,” she says.

But critics of the Wells ordinance say it is overly broad. The Wells town attorney has written an opinion that says the ordinance violates established federal and state constitutional principles, Maine law and the town’s Charter.

For one thing, writes attorney Leah Rachin, property owners in Maine have “absolute dominion” over groundwater under their property. By divesting a corporation of the right to use its property, Rachin says the town could be participating in an illegal “takings.” She also says making a violation of the ordinance a criminal offense is something only state and federal governments can do.

The Wells Chamber of Commerce opposes the ordinance for another reason. Executive Director Eleanor Vadenais says it’s anti-business. “Basically if this passes it strips all legal and constitutional rights away from any businesses in the town of Wells. This includes corporations, LLCs, basically anyone except sole proprietors.”

But Gail Darrell of Barnstead, New Hampshire says she’s heard those arguments before. Darrell is a member of the group Citizens of Barnstead for Living Democracy. Three years ago Barnstead voters passed a similar local ordinance. “Atkinson, New Hampshire and Nottingham, New Hampshire also have the ordinance in place. The big concern about this is that it’s anti-business. Yet, we’ve had no impact whatsover upon our local business folks. In fact, we’ve had a couple new businesses come into town.”

“Quite frankly, there’s no need for this type of ordinance but I do understand peoples’ concern about water extraction and the impact it may have on the community,” says Bob Foley, a longtime resident of Wells, a member of the Wells Chamber of Commerce and a candidate for Wells selectman.

He says there’s a better way to govern water withdrawals and still protect local business interests. “And the way to address that is through a regulatory ordinance that would put the town of Wells in the permitting process of anybody coming in trying to extract water from the town of Wells.”

Foley says a group of Wells residents is working on such a proposal that would come before voters in the fall.

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