Cadre of residents, merchants look to repeal plastic water bottle ban
Great Barrington — A controversial environmental measure enacted earlier this month at the annual town meeting might be rescinded if opponents get their way.
Late in the evening during the May 7 annual town meeting, voters approved by a margin of approximately 2-1 a measure that effectively bans the sale of single-use plastic noncarbonated water bottles of 1 liter in size or less within the town limits of Great Barrington. The new bylaw will take effect Wednesday, May 1, 2019.
The approval from residents followed a lengthy and impassioned appeal from three Monument Mountain Regional High School students. They pointed to an array of research and data indicating the environmental issues associated with plastic in general and the single-use water bottles in particular because of the chronic infiltration of microplastic debris into the food chain.
Even among its supporters, the approval of the initiative was far from certain but, as attendees watched the students and listened to almost a dozen other people speak in favor of it, the momentum of the measure built and it passed by acclamation.
While a lengthy list of businesses and other organizations in town said they supported the new bylaw, it nonetheless did not sit did well with a number of other merchants who felt the ban would harm their businesses or who objected on the grounds of legislative overreach.
John and Diane Tracy, who own Gorham & Norton, the downtown grocery and liquor store, said the loss of bottled water would affect their bottom line—they sell 30 cases of Poland Spring a week during the summer.
The Tracys are hosting a petition, though Diane Tracy told the Edge they are not asking customers to sign it. If customers ask for the petition, the Tracys will present it to them for signing.
So who is the force behind the repeal effort? Not a merchant but just a regular resident of Great Barrington who is bothered by the new law, Laura Keefner wrote a letter to the editor of The Edge that was published today. She argued instead for increased recycling efforts.
In an Edge interview, Keefner said she did not attend the annual town meeting this year, in part because she was not aware of the proposed bylaw until a couple of days before the meeting. She assumed it would not pass and was later shocked to learn that it had. Keefner considered trying to get it repealed next year, but ultimately decided she couldn’t wait that long.
“My original thought was I would wait until next year’s [annual town meeting] but stores would already have already taken steps to comply,” she said.
In addition, Keefner said — and this reporter can confirm — there were far fewer people at the town meeting near the end when the plastic water bottle ban was presented and voted upon. She also thinks that bylaw should have been subject to a secret ballot rather than a voice vote, especially given the fact that students were advocating for it. She likened it to a show of hands for the passage of a school budget.
“The minute you stand up to say something against kids, you are accused of not supporting kids,” said Keefner, adding that she would have preferred that the measure have been on the ballot for a town election instead.
So what are the logistics attached to petitioning for a special town meeting? Town clerk Marie Ryan told The Edge the pertinent section of Massachusetts General Law stipulates that the petition must have the certified signatures of 200 registered voters or 20 percent of the total number of registered voters of the town, whichever number is less. The special town meeting must be held no later than 45 days after the selectboard receives the request.
As of this month’s annual town elections, Great Barrington had 4,574 registered voters. Twenty percent of that would be 914, so the petition organizers only need 200 signatures.
As of Friday morning, Keefner did not know the number of voters who had signed the petitions. In addition to the aforementioned Gorham & Norton, Keefner said several businesses agreed to host petitions, including Carr Hardware, the VFW, Plaza Package, Aberdale’s and Eagle Shoe & Boot.
In advance of the annual town meeting, at least 40 businesses and organizations had signed off on the plastic water bottle ban. There were some high-profile businesses on the list, including Guido’s, Prairie Whale, Domaney’s and SoCo. Relatively late in the game, the Berkshire Co-op Market came on board. The endorsement by those organizations was widely seen as very helpful to the passage of the bylaw.
But there are other merchants in town not hosting petitions who are nonetheless wary of the new bylaw. Robin Helfand, who owns Robin’s Candy, is one such merchant.
“We strongly support all initiatives to reduce the use of products not environmentally friendly,” said Helfand, a Sheffield resident. “However, we’re equally committed to voluntary efforts to do so.”
Helfand insisted that her position on the issue “has nothing to do with being a merchant. I have lived in countries with very restrictive regulatory environments,” she said, citing Germany as one example. “My hope is that this chapter has made all of us hypervigilant about recycling efforts with the expectation that we will not ask for unnecessary packaging and that we will bring our own bags — that kind of thing.”
Richard Stanley, who owns the Triplex Cinema and the Barrington House, told The Edge he enthusiastically supports the repeal effort and thinks the solution is better education about plastics in general.
Of the committee that advocated for the ban, Stanley said: “If this group is looking to make a difference, they need a different approach. Also they need to deal with the major offiender of the use of plastics, which is soft drinks.”
Stanley added that no one has approached him about hosting a petition at the cinema but, if they do, “I’m happy to support that effort.”
And it’s not only merchants who have concerns about new bylaw. For a window into the thought of the rank-and-file, see a discussion thread on the Great Barrington Community Board Facebook page.
Contacted by The Edge today, members of the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group and Indivisible Berkshires, the panel that had sponsored the successful bylaw, were unaware of the repeal effort.
“The bill passed easily. We presented the information by the book and the vote was in clear favor for the ban,” said committee member Wendy Kleinman of Great Barrington. “Since the bill will not go into effect until 2019, [with] enough time for the necessary adjustments, it seems unreasonable to me to want to repeal it.”
“The merchants certainly have the right to challenge the bylaw,” added committee member Marcia Arland, an Egremont resident. “And we would certainly work toward protecting the bylaw as passed by large majority on May 7.”
Since Great Barrington is only the third municipality in the nation to enact a plastic water bottle ban (the other two are also in Massachusetts), there is not much in the way of precedent to examine. A similar bylaw was approved by voters in the eastern Massachusetts town of Concord in 2012.
Last year, a similar bottle initiative passed in nearby Sudbury and it even survived a subsequent repeal attempt initiated by the owner of a coffee house who insisted the water bottle ban would hurt his bottom line and trample on his customers’ freedom of choice.
As was the case with the Great Barrington effort, students played a key role in Sudbury. The Environmental Club at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School proposed the bylaw at the annual town meeting last year, and defended it during the special town meeting called to repeal it in October.
Keefner said she wanted to obtain more than 200 signatures “just to be on the safe side,” because, invariably in any petitioning effort, there are challenges and some signatures are disqualified on technicalities. She declined to predict when the petition would be ready but was confident that the vote at a special town meeting would be much closer than it was earlier this month.