Strafford Residents Debate Gun, Earth Rights
With wings attached to her back, Roz Finn amplified those who spoke at Strafford Town Meeting yesterday as the “microphone fairy.” (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Strafford resident Hazel Lewis was honored at yesterday’s Town Meeting for her decades-long attendance at the annual event. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Kenneth Alton digs into his lunch outside the Town House during the lunch break at Strafford Town Meeting yesterday. The stoves were used to keep food hot for the pot luck lunch. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Strafford — After emotional debates, voters here overwhelmingly passed resolutions urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons and to bestow legal rights on the Earth during a Town Meeting in which parochial matters were nudged aside by a debate that has been carried out in living rooms across the country for past several weeks.
Over the course of five hours, budgets were approved and officeholders were selected, but the meeting was dominated by a proposal, ultimately passed by a 132-47 vote, to urge state lawmakers to ban assault rifles and require criminal background checks for all gun buyers.
“I don’t think anybody in this room needs to own these military-style weapons,” said Anne Peyton, a self-identified hunter. “I don’t think (the article) impinges on my Second Amendment rights. It says we have a right to speak against the NRA.”
Inevitably, the debate showcased the usual divisions: Gun rights advocates criticized the proposal as an infringement on the Second Amendment that would push guns onto the black market.
“We are doing a knee-jerk reaction,” resident Scott Traudt said. “Just like with drugs, and booze during Prohibition, you are going to create a black market that would be the envy of any Third World nation.”
Bob Bauer urged Second Amendment supporters to consider other modern developments, including increasing government surveillance and the use of drones, that often do not evoke the same impassioned arguments.
“I say fine, but don’t stop there and wake up, because there are a lot worse things going on with your freedom,” Bauer said. “We’re not going to be able to go to ‘Drones-R-Us’ to counter the power of our government. Keep fighting for your rights, but fight for the other stuff.”
After approving the gun resolution, residents turned their attention to the other big-picture article on the warning: a proposal to protect the environment by declaring that Mother Nature had inherent rights that voters could sue to protect if they believe them violated.
It quickly became obvious that the petitioned article, as worded, stood little chance: Even environmental advocates said they were uncomfortable with potential consequences of opening up any act that affected the environment to costly litigation.
“Although I am a big fan of supporting the environment, the legal ramifications of this could do exactly the opposite of what (advocates) want,” said Amy Huyffer, who works at an organic dairy farm in town. “Lawyers could find some tree that we chopped down — the lawyers and fees would be game over for us.”
Others were more dismissive.
“It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Greg Lewis said.
Ultimately, voters stripped away more than half of the 93-word proposal, leaving an article that stating that the natural environment and animals have “natural, inherent and unalienable rights,” without any subsequent language suggesting that individuals have legal rights to seek damages for infringements on the environment.
The change was endorsed by the proposal’s creator, Steve Marx, who said he spent months attending a class at Vermont Law School and talking with attorneys to craft his proposal. “I don’t have a problem changing any of the article,” Marx said. “What I care about is taking care of the Earth.”
Earlier in the day, residents chose Sally Hull, a former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency who aided the town’s efforts to clean up the Elizabeth Mine, to replace Stephen Willbanks, who stepped down after 21 years on the Selectboard. (Willbanks was in Hawaii yesterday.)
With little debate, voters passed a $914,000 town budget, up 1.9 percent from the current year’s spending plan, that translated to a town property tax rate of 52 cents, a 2 cent increase.
After Town Meeting and lunch, Town Hall largely emptied out, and a much smaller crowd approved the $3 million school budget and other spending articles, returned Paul Perkins to the School Board, and elevated Hilary Linehan and Heather Waterbury to fill vacancies on the board.
The school budget, which was increased by $25,000 yesterday to help purchase an emergency generator for the Newton School, was up roughly 6.5 percent and added a penny to the school property tax rate.