Shapleigh voters have ‘won,’ for now

York County Journal Tribune, March 3, 2009

In seven minutes Saturday, the residents of Shapleigh made history.

Regardless of one’s views on industrial water extraction for commercial purposes, the 114 to 66 vote to establish Maine’s first rights-based ordinance was aggressive and remarkable.

Now, as the members of the Board of Selectmen and the Maine Municipal Association have said, the question is whether such an ordinance will hold.

Knowing the power of corporate interests in the state and nation, and the power of interstate commerce decisions by the United States Supreme Court, it would be surprising if it does hold.

For months, the discussion of commercial water extraction has been the topic of conversation in many York County communities, but particularly Shapleigh, which has, in many aspects of local government, held on to its rural roots and complexion. The residents are staunch advocates of their rights, and participation in government has been strong throughout the years.

But the teapot began to boil as a group of citizens became concerned with what they saw as a lack of selectmen empathy or input when it came to the possible tapping of state-owned land within the town by Poland Spring for commercial water bottling.

Now, through a special Town Meeting, a rights-based ordinance is on the books. The ordinance bars commercial entities from drilling the soil for water, a commodity that, even in abundance, is not worth sharing with anyone but a town resident, those in support of the measure would say.

Such is the first prohibition in Maine, and only the second in New England.

However, since part of the exploration is on state land, the next move will probably come through the courts. The selectmen expressed doubt that the measure would hold up when it came to state land, saying that the ordinance might only affect town-owned land.

It is anyone’s guess whether Poland Spring will push to see if the ordinance carries water. Engaging in a lengthy legal battle with a community might not be in the company’s best interest.

But, the state itself might stand against such an ordinance knowing that the power to govern its lands within communities might be in jeopardy if the ordinance holds. The legal precedent established would allow for communities to change how state lands within the borders are used, mitigated and held.

The victory, for now, lies in the hands of the Shapleigh residents who took on the town and the big company and seemingly won. But, that victory might be short-lived and hollow, depending on who or what comes along to challenge whether such an ordinance will become the norm in Maine, or will be just a passing reference in legal books.