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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

Standing up for Community Rights

Dec 11, 2012 01:59PM ● By Beth Davis


For decades, people across the United States have formed neighborhood groups and organized themselves to block a range of threats—from the privatization of their water by corporations, factory farms and the land application of sewage sludge, to mining, corporate land development and gas drilling—against their communities. These citizens have faced corporations of all sizes to inject change in an effort to take back their community and their rights. Through grassroots organizing, public education, ordinance drafting, home rule charter campaigns and the provision of legal counsel, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) works with communities—residents, citizens groups and municipal governments—to help make it happen.

Formed in 1995 by Executive Director Thomas Linzey and Administrative Director Stacey Schmader to provide free and affordable legal services to community groups, the Defense Fund worked for several years, helping hundreds of communities in Pennsylvania facing unwanted corporate development projects. They appealed corporate permit applications through the state’s environmental regulatory system, and were quite successful in finding the holes and omissions that would render them incomplete. As such, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Hearing Board would toss out the permits, and the communities would celebrate, believing the system of law had worked.

However, the corporation could and would simply file another permit, this time filling in the holes and omissions cited by CELDF. Once the corporation filed a complete permit application, the state was automatically required to approve it. Though the communities would ask CELDF to appeal again, there was nothing they could do because the state legalizes an activity—such as mining, commercial water withdrawals or factory farming—and communities are legally prohibited from saying no to it. The members of the CELDF realized they needed to do their work differently, and in 1998, they began assisting communities to draft legally binding laws in which communities asserted their right to self-govern.

Their work drew national attention, inspiring the launch of the Daniel Pennock Democracy Schools (named for a boy in Pennsylvania who died after exposure to sewage sludge), in 2003. A key piece of their community organizing, the Democracy Schools are one to three-day intensive seminars that examine how communities across the U.S. are beginning to assert local control to protect the rights of their residents, their communities and nature. Each School reveals how it came to be that the law enables corporate managers to dictate their values and impose their projects on communities, and includes an intense, comprehensive history of the judicial bestowal of constitutional rights of persons on corporations.

It was attending a Democracy School about eight years ago that inspired Easton community activist and lifetime resident Dennis Lieb to take action. “The course is basically a re-education on the Constitution,” he says. “You realize that every decision is made for corporations and that there has been a real erosion of local rights over the years.”

As project coordinator for the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership, Lieb wanted to get the community engaged, so he gathered a group of about 20 people to attend the School with him, noting the importance of understanding what and why community rights are crucial. “These classes aren’t a single event, they are the beginning of a process; a challenge to do something, and education is key,” he notes. “People that get involved must understand that changes don’t happen overnight. Sometimes it’s a decades long fight, but it’s happening all the time.”

In Easton, Lieb is leading the grassroots effort to gain more local control by adopting a citizens’ bill of rights—one that raises people above corporations, empowers neighborhoods, challenges the idea of letting the state control what goes on in Easton and protects the environment, to name a few. Pittsburgh adopted a community bill of rights last year as part of a ban on natural gas drilling within the city, and the CELDF has assisted many other municipalities across Pennsylvania do the same.

In fact, just recently, three of CELDF’s communities—Mansfield and Broadview Heights, in Ohio, and Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania—banned shale gas drilling and fracking, adopting Community Bill of Rights charter amendments, asserting their rights to clean air and water, a sustainable energy future and the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish. These communities join a dozen others in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and New Mexico that have taken a stand for fundamental rights by banning fracking and related activities.

Lieb, for one, is hopeful that it’s only the beginning of change. “My town needs to regain local control. Residents need to understand how much influence is being taken away from us—they need to see it for themselves and then be willing to stand up for their community.”

For more information and to get involved in establishing a Bill of Rights for your community, visit

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