Food sovereignty takes next step toward town meeting

By Gabriel Blodgett | Mar 12, 2019
Photo by: Gabriel Blodgett The Rockport Select Board reviews a food sovereignty ordinance at its March 11 meeting.

Rockport — The Select Board voted unanimously March 11 to move a revised food sovereignty ordinance one step closer to a vote at the June town meeting.

Marci Casas, a proponent of the ordinance, appeared before the Select Board to discuss the changes made from the previous draft.

Select Board Chairman Ken McKinley clarified the vote March 12, saying, "The food sovereignty ordinance will now proceed to a public hearing, likely at our April 8 meeting, after which changes could be made during the meeting, then a vote will be taken to place it on the warrant for town meeting. If placed on the warrant, it will appear on the secret ballot at the elections Tuesday June 11, during that portion of the town meeting."

The new ordinance has been trimmed down and edited from the original version, based on a template on the pro-sovereignty website localfoodrules.org. That template, according to Select Board member Debra Hall, goes beyond what the state statute allows.

Food sovereignty, the practice of allowing local governments to define their food and agriculture systems, has gained momentum in Maine over the past decade. The passage of LD725 by the Legislature in 2017 formally allowed municipalities to opt out of federal and state licensing requirements for food products produced by individuals within the town who sell directly to consumers.

The new ordinance would allow farmers to sell a wider variety of offerings at farm stands, including baked and prepared products such as pies and pickles.

However, the state statute limits the breadth of town ordinances to transactions at the site of production, a distinction that prohibits the selling of these types of products at bake sales or farmer's markets.

Casas said the issue was on track to be fixed in the Legislature under the Lepage administration, but got caught up in the state budget process, and would have to be redone. She said she expected it to be pushed through the Legislature in short order and asked the Select Board if it would be possible to add an automatic amendment to the ordinance to update it if and when state law permitted.

McKinley expressed concern over the precedent of attaching an automatic amendment to an ordinance. That sentiment was seconded by Hall, and the board decided they would rather deal with amendments as they come up.

Skeptics of food sovereignty legislation have pointed to potential health risks that could arise from foods being prepared in unlicensed, noncommercial kitchens. In defense of the ordinance, Casas said she contacted a representative from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and was informed that there had been no cases of food-borne illness in Maine resulting from food sovereignty since 2011, when the first municipalities, including Hope, adopted similar legislation.

The next step for the ordinance is a public hearing that has yet to be announced.

In other business, the Select Board considered the possibility of entering into a contract to replace the current sodium-vapor streetlights with LED units. Mark Carter, vice president of sales for RealTerm Energy, made a presentation on the benefits adopting the more energy-efficient lights.

According to the company's initial calculations, the 247 town fixtures currently use 109,418 kilowatt hours of energy every year. By replacing these with LED units, Carter claimed usage could drop to 34,263 kWh, representing a 69 percent drop in annual consumption. While there would be significant upfront costs, including an estimated $126,563 for installation and $24,700 to acquire the poles and fixtures from CMP, it would take only 3.3 years for a return on the investment, he said. The average lifespan of an LED bulb is 23 years and the units would come with a 10-year warranty. All told, the cost of a fixture per year would drop from $224 to $46, representing a 79 percent savings.

Carter also discussed the different brightness and color options. Selectman Doug Cole wondered whether the Select Board would be tasked with choosing the color, imagining that there might be significant differences of opinion among the town residents, to which Carter responded that they could put up different samples, and Hall suggested an online survey. The Select Board was unanimously in favor of Town Manager Rick Bates pursuing the project.

The Select Board also invited the fire chiefs of Rockport, Camden and Rockland to discuss the possibility of a municipal consortium to combine and expand the departments' resources to provide emergency medical services to the entire area. The proposed change, which was originally discussed at a Camden Select Board meeting, arose from concerns about the rising costs of the ambulance contract with North East Mobile Health Services.

Rockland Fire and Emergency Management Services Chief Chris Whytock stated that the fire departments already frequently work with each other. He went on to cite the lack of hospital transfers, the flexibility in terms of moving ambulances around and the benefits of having cross-trained personnel equipped to deal with a wide range of emergencies as major benefits of the proposed change. Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley also brought up the ability to offer full-time employment to young people interested in remaining in the area after training as a potential benefit.

While several members of the Select Board expressed concern over the proposed cost of the idea, which would include buying two new ambulances and paying for nine or 10 additional employees who would be working 24-hour shifts, the consensus was that they owed it to the town and the community at large to look into any options that could improve essential services. The next step will be to put out dollar figures to the public to allow for more substantive discussion.

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