Many have the impression that New Hampshire, with its town meeting form of local governance, is closest to what this nation’s Founding Fathers envisioned and experienced when they spoke of “local democracy.” Here, like nowhere else, people participate directly in governing – in practice, not just in concept. Every citizen is a local legislator at town meeting.
Yet as Granite State citizens have discovered when they’ve endeavored to locally curtail corporate water withdrawals, fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure, unsustainable green-energy projects, toxic waste dumping, and water contamination, local democratic control has been stripped away by the combined effort of legislators who adopt corporate-lobbied laws, and the courts that uphold them.
New Hampshire – like the vast majority of states – is under Dillon’s rule. For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from an 1868 Iowa court ruling (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1907), stating that local governments can only do what the state expressly permits them to do. The state is the parent, the municipality is the child. It’s a rule that dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It’s also a rule that seems contradictory to the spirit of the of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Under the 10th Amendment, in theory, the powers to act democratically should be enlarged as they get closer to the people. Yet Dillon’s Rule permits state preemption to act as a dam against local democracy.
For over a decade, communities across New Hampshire have partnered with Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to advance democratic and environmental rights, and protect their local communities from harm. Nearly a dozen communities have adopted CELDF-drafted rights-based ordinances (RBOs). Today, even more communities are looking to CELDF and the NH Community Rights Network (NHCRN) to advance their rights and challenge our legal and governing system. Further, they are now driving forward a first-of-its-kind Community Rights state constitutional amendment. Earlier this year, that amendment was debated and voted on in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives.
The proposed amendment, drafted with CELDF’s assistance and advanced by the NHCRN, recognizes the authority of people in towns throughout the state to enact local rights-based laws protecting individual and communities’ rights. It empowers people to use their local governing authority to protect the health, safety, and welfare of both humans and natural environments. It removes communities’ vulnerability to state and corporate power, safeguarding them from corporate exploitation, as well as state preemption and oppression at the hands of the very government that is charged to protect them.
Nine lawmakers championed the NH Community Rights Amendment, giving it bi-partisan sponsorship. It received support from a legislative subcommittee with a recommendation of “ought-to-pass”. And in its first attempt on the House floor, it received support from one-third of the body present and voting – more than halfway to the required three-fifths majority needed for advancement to the state Senate.
The NH Community Rights Amendment will be reintroduced as many times as it takes to pass it. We know from prior people’s movements that fundamental change takes persistent, unrelenting pressure. As corporate threats grow in the Granite State, more communities are joining the Community Rights movement.
Barnstead was the first municipality in the state to enact a rights-based, Community Bill of Rights law. The Barnstead Right to Water and Local Self-Government Ordinance passed almost unanimously at Town Meeting in 2006. This was a first in the nation ordinance that prohibited water extractions by asserting the rights of residents over the decision-making process, and by rejecting corporate privilege. Ten years later, in 2016, Barnstead enacted a first-in-the-nation law that protects residents from political and civil persecution based on their religious beliefs. The Community Bill of Rights law establishes the right to be free from religious identification requirements.
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Cheshire County Swanzey residents, concerned about election integrity, drafted a Free and Fair Elections Ordinance including a Community Bill of Rights that would prohibit corporate involvement in elections, prohibit corporates or governments from engaging in electioneering or the operation of vote-counting computers. Residents are taking the time to educate their community prior to petitioning the Ordinance.
Coos County Lancaster residents drafted a Rights-based Ordinance (RBO) to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and ecosystems, by establishing a Community Bill of Rights recognizing their Right to a Sustainable Energy Future. The Ordinance was placed on the 2012 Town Warrant, but pressure from local elected officials interfered with voter support. Residents continue to support the Community Rights Movement by calling for state constitutional change recognizing the Right to Local Community Self-Government.
Easton was the first municipality to enact the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, Community Bill of Rights Ordinance, in 2012, to prohibit unsustainable energy infrastructure from being built within the Town.
Sugar Hill unanimously adopted a similar law that evening at their Town Meeting.
Plymouth enacted a similar RBO a few days later. They have already begun creating a Sustainable Energy Policy with a solar-generated 60 MW capacity system that operates the municipal water and sewer system.
Almost all affected communities oppose the Hydro-Quebec’s Northern Pass project, which proposes to use New Hampshire lands for high-tension, transmission lines to carry electrical power to the Southern tier (MA and CT), with no access, or benefit to, New Hampshire people.
Grafton was the fourth to adopt a Community Bill of Rights in 2013 against Unsustainable Energy Systems in response to the many proposed industrial wind projects for the Newfound Lake region.
In 2014 Alexandria and Hebron joined the other four towns in Grafton County to enact a Community Bill of Rights (RBO). Their Ordinances prohibit industrial wind projects from siting in the Town.
All of the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future Ordinances contain a provision for each town to create its own Sustainable Energy Policy.
In response the the proposed Kinder Morgan, Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline project across southern New Hampshire, residents from Mason drafted a Sustainable Energy Community Bill of Rights Ordinance for 2016 Town Meeting. The Ordinance was withdrawn from the Warrant due to pressure from misinformed elected officials. Residents continue to support the Community Rights Movement within their region. Although the application for the NED project was withdrawn by Kinder Morgan, residents of Mason continue to work towards sustainable communities based on Community Rights.
Danbury is the first municipality in Merrimack County to enact a Community Bill of Rights Ordinance in 2014. The RBO prohibits unsustainable energy systems from operating in the town.
There were three towns in 2014 that adopted similar Ordinances to prohibit industrial wind projects that were neither accessible, nor provided a benefit to, Town residents. The other two towns are located in Grafton County.
Nottingham adopted the Nottingham Right to Water and Local Self-Government Ordinance in 2008 after the Town spent over $400,000 appealing the permits through the regulatory schemes that are part of our legal system. Despite evidence from residents that warned against state-issue of a permit for the USA Spring’s proposal for groundwater extraction from a bedrock aquifer, the 10 – day pump tests lowered wells 4 – 7 feet and residents were cautioned not to drink their water because it might be contaminated.
At their 2019 town meeting, residents of Nottingham adopted a second Rights-based Ordinance further protecting their water. With the adoption of the Nottingham Freedom from Chemical Trespass Ordinance, townspeople have empowered all inhabitants of the community with legal standing to protect both human and natural communities from corporate polluters.
Exeter townspeople adopted the first Right to a Healthy Climate & Self-Government Ordinance in 2019. The ordinance asserts the community’s rights to clean air, pure water, and local community self-government. It bans corporate activities that release toxic contaminates into the air, water, and soil as a violation of those rights. Exeter community members face Liberty Utility’s proposed 27-mile long Granite Bridge fracked gas pipeline project, which is slated to cross eight New Hampshire towns. The project threatens to contaminate the Piscataqua River Watershed, an ecosystem that hundreds of thousands of people and countless species depend upon for clean air and water.
Epping adopted the first resolution calling for the Right to Decide an LNG storage tank and facility in their town and also calls for state constitutional change recognizing the right of local community self-government. This resolution was adopted in 2019.
Barrington, in 2016, adopted a Community Bill of Rights in response to corporate interests intent on gravel mining and water withdrawals from the Isinglass River. The Ordinance prohibits corporations from siting additional gravel mining or water extraction projects that would violate the right to clean air, pure water and the right of self-government, and calling for state constitutional change specifically recognizing the Right of Local Community Self-government.