ELLSWORTH — Nearly two dozen advocates and opponents — environmentalists, attorneys and unorganized territories camp owners among them — argued Feb. 7 over a proposed ordinance to protect water by prohibiting construction of an East-West highway in the unorganized territories.
The venue was a special meeting of the Hancock County Commission.
An East-West highway (one proposed route ran from Calais to Coburn Gore) is not in the works at this time. But the idea has been floated, debated and shelved numerous times since the 1940s.
The Feb. 7 hearing was convened by Hancock County Commissioners to address a proposed ordinance titled “Hancock County Unorganized Territory Water Quality Protection and Community Bill of Rights for Local Self-Governance Ordinance.”
If the commissioners enacted the ordinance, its provisions would assign plaintiff status to threatened ecosystems.
The ordinance put forward by Commission Chairman Antonio Blasi and Commissioner John Wombacher is modeled on one previously adopted by the town of Sangerville.
Those opposed to the ordinance argue that the measure violates both the Maine and the U.S. constitutions.
A particular sticking point for opponents is a paragraph that says it is “unlawful for any corporation to contact or communicate with any resident or elected official concerning any issue related to the ordinance either prior to or after adoption of the ordinance.”
So, perhaps those who spoke at the Feb. 7 hearing did so illegally?
Those who support the ordinance said they are worried that the health of Maine’s water may be at risk by future development, including any buildup along an East-West highway.
Jennifer Riefler of Verona Island urged adoption of the ordinance.
“We are still suffering consequences of mercury dumping 50 years ago and 20 miles away,” Riefler said. “We wish to have public control of our own waters and keep them pristine.”
Jody Spear of Brooksville said she noticed most of the people on a list to speak at the meeting are not from the unorganized territories.
“This is not a NIMBY [not in my backyard] position I’m arguing,” Spear said.
“The project, while dormant, cannot assume to have been abandoned,” Spear said of the East-West highway idea. “We must be proactive in putting roadblocks in place.”
Claire Mortimer of Brooklin also spoke in support.
“If we allow our drinking water to be polluted with toxic chemicals, our health will be ruined,” said Mortimer who recreates in the Unorganized Territories. “We must uphold the rights of residents to make decisions about what happens to our water. This ordinance is an important step in the right direction.”
Katie Greenman of Orland read a letter from Bonnie Preston of Blue Hill, who was unable to attend.
Preston said “rights-based ordinances are a national movement, as are ecosystem rights ordinances.”
Jim Freeman of Verona Island said, “Europe is going to run out of water quickly. We’re going to get hit harder than we can ever realize.”
A few others supported the proposed ordinance but only with revision.
Among these was John Greenman of Orland.
The ordinance “simply gives residents the ability to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, do we really want this?’” Greenman said. “Is this the best thing for our community?”
Jane Crosen of Penobscot said she supports the ordinance with amendments.
Crosen took issue with the phrase “East-West highway” calling it a “loaded term with old baggage.”
“A generic term would be less confusing,” Crosen said.
Nearly as many people who spoke in favor of the ordinance spoke against it.
A Township 34 camp owner said, “This is very bold. Has anyone checked to see if the county has the authority to act on this?”
Commissioner Bill Clark replied, “We have done no legal research on this whatsoever.”
Duane Jordan, owner of Elliott Jordan and Son in Waltham, spoke against the ordinance.
Jordan said he’s witnessed development projects in the area that have been regulated by the state of Maine.
“Water quality and safety are the number one and two things on their minds,” Jordan said. “I don’t understand why we need this ordinance. I’m against this ordinance. I wonder why this commission would feel they can do a better job than what’s already in place.”
Patrick Strauch, who represents the Maine Forest Products Council, said, “We’re watching carefully the discussion that’s taking place here. We want to make sure you understand how concerned the landowner community is feeling. We’re beginning to feel we’re backed into a corner.”
Attorney Tim Woodcock of Eaton Peabody, representing an Unorganized Territories landowner, said the board would violate the Maine and U.S. constitutions if it adopted the ordinance. Adopting the ordinance would leave the county and the commissioners vulnerable to court challenge.
“You can adopt this ordinance and you can say you’re taking away somebody’s rights to speak — those rights are guaranteed in the Maine Constitution and the U.S. Constitution,” Woodcock said.
Woodcock also took issue with the idea of an ecosystem as a plaintiff in a court case.
“You don’t have the ability to give a non-entity standing to sue,” Woodcock said. “I would really urge you to get some very good legal advice.”
Darren Hammond, who is senior manager of farm operations for Jasper Wyman and Sons, cited several issues with the ordinance.
Hammond said the ordinance “makes capitalism in Hancock County illegal.” He said he questioned whether the ordinance in question was “socialism” or “communism” and decided it was neither.
“The only word in my mind is fascism,” Hammond said. “I’m challenging your authority to implement this ordinance because it’s unconstitutional. It violates my constitutional rights and those of the company I work for.”
Mike Howie, district manager for American Forest Management, said his company manages 1 million acres of forest in Maine, including 191,000 acres in Hancock County.
“We adamantly oppose this ordinance for many reasons,” Howie said. “The LURC [Land Use Regulation Commission] already manages the unorganized territories.”
The proposed ordinance as written is “illegal and unconstitutional” as well as a “detriment to Hancock County and the state of Maine,” Howie said.
The board took no action after the hearing.
Blasi said he plans to deliberate at the board’s Feb. 21 meeting on “whether to adopt this ordinance or request that it be revised.”
The board will take up the issue again at the Feb. 21 meeting. The agenda starts at 8:30 a.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Patrick Strauch, who represents the Maine Forest Products Council.