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Banning Corporate Personhood: How Communities Are Taking the Law Back from Big Companies

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund explains how communities can fight corporate power with a new legal weapon.

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But the permits are the license to engage in the activity.

What we found was that the state more and more -- the state legislature -- adopted laws wherein they occupied the field of regulation and stripped local governments of the opportunity to regulate industry and the activities they engage in locally. And just to give you an example, the Legal Defense Fund didn't start working with communities on the gas drilling issue. That's become a huge issue. Everywhere I go, the crowds get larger and larger. When we go to municipal meetings and talk to folks, the crowds are getting huge. People are just energized about this issue.

But that's not where we started working. Frankly, we began working in rural communities in Pennsylvania on issues generally having to do with agriculture -- communities that were concerned about the establishment of factory farms as the new way of engaging in agriculture in Pennsylvania. That wasn't seemingly such a big problem back before the mid-1990s. We had about 400 communities -- municipalities in Pennsylvania at the time -- that had ordinances in place -- legal ordinances -- not challenging any existing law, that said that factory farms essentially were excluded. They wanted to support independent family farming.

Unfortunately -- and this is part of the precautionary tale I want to tell -- is that just because you have what looked like strong local authority under your home rule provisions of your constitution doesn't mean they're permanent. And I don't mean that just to scare you. As a Pennsylvanian, I envy your Home Rule law. I think it's great as it stands. It really does afford a degree of local control that the folks in Pennsylvania -- 12-1/2 million of them in over 1,200 municipalities -- wish they could have back.

We have experienced, though, that when industry wants to make it easier to get what they want, they change the laws for us. That's what we experienced. That's why we changed our strategy in terms of what to do in order to combat the industrialization of our communities, and really ... you'll hear me talk about corporations -- I'm not anti-corporation; I actually work for one. It's a nonprofit, but I actually work for one. They're good tools; they're good legal tools. They can also be used in a negative way, just like a lot of legal things can be.

What we experienced beginning in the early 2000s was a transformation of state law that stripped local communities of the authority to say "no" to the industrialization of agriculture ... by the way, to say "no" to mining. We had land use laws under the Municipalities Planning Code -- that's the state code of land use law -- that did not prohibit communities from zoning out mining, and did not prohibit them from zoning out agriculture that was industrialized. The Municipalities Planning Code was amended any number of times, and it's a litany of surrender of local control and Home Rule authority to industry, where the Municipalities Planning Code was amended to disallow local municipal control or regulation of the timber industry, of mining, of water withdrawals, of agriculture, one after another after another, to the point where what we have left in terms of our ability to deal with an industry like gas drilling is, we can regulate the roads and impact on roads. We can attempt to impose conditions in terms of putting up fences and what color paint is used on the drilling rigs so that they blend in with the background.