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You can fight back
October 26, 2012
TORONTO, ON, Oct. 26,2012/ Troy Media/ – Local communities these days – from neighbourhoods in large cities to villages and small towns in the countryside – are feeling powerless to stop the march of corporate projects.
Or are they? In the United States, some 150 communities to date have successfully fought back.
They’re instituting municipal ordinances that force everyone, from a local citizen to the world’s largest corporations, to play by the same rules such as ‘no one can lower the local aquifer’, ‘no one can polllute the ground water’, ‘no one can convert farmland to a gravel pit’, ‘no one can build a big box store of any kind’ and the big one: ‘no one can expend a penny for political influence’.
That means no flyers, no billboards, no advertising, no lobbying, period.
Pennsylvania has over 100 of these communities. It started in rural areas: what’s known as ‘rock-ribbed Republican country’.
Local councils filled with small-c conservatives were tired of their state legislature and Congress passing laws and approving international treaties and court decisions at the State and Federal Supreme Court levels, that empowered corporations to do as they, in the words of one local councillor, ‘damn well pleased and to hell with us’.
So they fought back.
Towns control zoning. They zoned activities they didn’t want out of existence.
They asserted town control over watersheds, roads, rail lines.
They were careful never to single out any organization in particular, or any project in particular. These are blanket restrictions.
In Pennsylvania, it was to stop fracking operations for oil and gas in the Marcellus shale that began the trend.
Corporations screamed. They were ignored. A few tried going to court. They lost: the right of a community to govern land use and acceptable community behaviour was upheld over commercial activity and gain. All the lobbying in the world can’t get either the state representatives and senators or those sent to Washington to Congress to touch the issue with a barge pole.
Communities govern themselves, and if they don’t want endless truck traffic, coal trains, or certain industrial processes they don’t have to have them.
Something that perhaps the people of Melancthon Township in Ontario, who are fighting 3191574 Nova Scotia Company doing business as The Highland Companies, might keep in mind. They don’t have to have farmland converted to a gravel quarry that dives below the water table even if the farms have been sold.
Just pass an ordinance that no operation can touch the water table.
This isn’t just being done in small rural towns trying to preserve themselves and their way of life.
Pittsburgh, one of America’s only cities that escaped the real estate bust in that country thanks to its much different property tax regime, is also in the community ordinance business. (Pittsburgh taxes land value based on location and proximity to municipal services like transit, but ignores the value of the building on the land, thus eliminating much municipal ‘land banking’ as surface parking lots and stabilizing real estate values: no boom, but no bust either.) Once a city held hostage to its steel industry, Pittsburgh is now removing the influence of organizations of all types from its civic affairs.
In Spokane, Washington, another city which normally votes Republican, not Democrat, a ballot initiative will again be on the November 6 election to write into the municipal charter a citizen bill of rights, placing the ordinance structure directly into the rules for municipal governance. The first attempt, in 2010, gained 34 per cent of the vote; the second, in 2011, 49.5 per cent. Control would be asserted over political speech, lobbying, land use, water use, what can be transported through the community and the ability to undertake certain resource and industrial processes.
As Canadians well know, the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (and NAFTA to follow) set up conditions where corporations can sue for redress if they believe they’re discriminated against. What the few court decisions rendered (in over 95 per cent of cases corporations have just folded and never sued) have said in the United States is that when a measure is universal within a locality, regardless of the kind of business, it’s non-discriminatory, and therefore no redress is required.
So a Canadian community that wanted to require local ownership of all stores in its commercial district – either a ‘no chains’ approach or a ‘locally-owned affiliate only’ approach – could enforce that. One that gave rights to nature (for example, ‘the clean water supply to nature in our community shall not be restricted’) likewise does not discriminate.
Creating a sustainable, thriving community requires two things: the creation of ventures, and the protection of the community. It’s time all of us looked more closely at just how much power we the people actually hold, in the places we live.
Troy Media Columnist Bruce Stewart is a management consultant located in Toronto.
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