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Rebel Towns, Can Local Communities Regulate Themselves?

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The 600 residents of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, have done a laudable job of keeping the vulgarities of modern life at bay. There are no fast-food restaurants, no neon signs. Instead, the former iron-mining town has rambling country inns and a main road lined with Victorian and Arts and Crafts houses. Locals gather for breakfast, as they have since 1938, at Polly's Pancake Parlor, which grinds its own corn and wheat and uses syrup from the sugar maples that give the town its name. With tourism driving the economy, the village's biggest assets are its fall foliage, fields of lupines and uninterrupted views of the snow-capped White Mountains.

Each March, Sugar Hill's voters gather at the white meetinghouse-a converted church built in 1830 with a trio of gold-leaf clocks on its steeple-for their annual town meeting. Anyone who collects enough signatures can place an item on the agenda to be voted into law. That New Englander impulse toward self-government, combined with the feistiness that led Sugar Hill to secede from a neighboring town in 1962, might explain its residents' sweeping response when they learned in 2010 that an international electric consortium has proposed a high-voltage transmission line that would slice through the village like a giant zipper.

The Northern Pass, if built, would enter New Hampshire at the Canadian border and bisect some of the state's most intact forestland as it connects Quebec's hydroelectric dams with New England's power grid. Steel towers, some exceeding thirteen stories in height, would line the 180-mile route, which snakes through ten miles of protected national forest and seven miles of Sugar Hill. Conservationists say the project is unneeded and could degrade waterways and fragment wildlife habitats.

But what New Hampshirites fear most is that the Northern Pass will disfigure the state's visual landscape. "It could destroy our economy," says Dolly McPhaul, a lifelong Sugar Hill resident. "If people don't build their second homes here, where are the builders going to get their money? The plumbers? The grocery store that feeds these people?" McPhaul and her neighbors were particularly disheartened to learn that the Northern Pass required federal and state permits-but no local permits at all.

"You're shocked to find out you have no say," says Nancy Martland, a retired child-development researcher who moved to Sugar Hill in 2007. "Even your whole town. Even at town meeting. Even your Select Board. You have no power. People in New Hampshire-maybe everywhere, I don't know-we want to stand up for ourselves."

So they did. Last year, Martland and McPhaul campaigned for a local ordinance that would ban corporations from acquiring land or building structures to support any "unsustainable energy system." The ordinance stripped those corporations of their free-speech and due-process rights under the Constitution, as well as protections afforded by the Constitution's commerce and contract clauses. Judicial rulings that recognized corporations as legal "persons" would not be recognized in Sugar Hill. Any state or federal law that tried to interfere with the town's authority would be invalidated. "Natural communities and ecosystems"-wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers-would acquire "inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish," and any resident could enforce the law on their behalf. "All power is inherent in the people," the measure stated.
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