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Local Governance Advocates Try Again To Amend State Constitution

Annie Ropeik

Advocates for more local control in New Hampshire are trying again to amend the state constitution, this time to let municipalities pass laws protecting people's health and the environment.

A dozen New Hampshire towns already have ordinances geared toward ensuring locals’ health, safety and welfare, sparked by big energy developments or water quality concerns.

But Granite State municipalities technically can’t enact any laws the state doesn’t allow them to. So supporters say those ordinances wouldn't hold up in court – which is why they need a constitutional amendment.

They tried to pass the so-called Community Rights Amendment two years ago, but failed amid concerns it would give municipalities too much power and undermine state government.

Like most states, New Hampshire follows what’s called Dillon’s Rule, where municipalities derive all their governing abilities from the state Legislature.

A minority of states has varying degrees of the opposite – home rule, where towns and cities can govern freely as long as they follow state and federal law.

Lobbyists for the Community Rights Amendment told the House local governance committee Tuesday the proposal only creates a narrow degree of home rule in New Hampshire. They were joined by dozens of residents and families who support the bill.

Rep. Wayne Burton, a Democrat and co-sponsor, says the amendment would give citizens recourse for when they don't feel the state has their best interests at heart – such as when it permits an unwelcome local land use.

"When the character of the town is severely threatened, the people in local level ought to have an ability to pass a law or regulation under this,” Burton says. “That's what this is for."

The amendment is scheduled for several work sessions before it can go to the House floor. (Read the full text of the bill here.)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that about 10 states follow Dillon's Rule. In fact, about 40 do.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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