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Attempt To Buck Bottle Ban In Great Barrington Fails

An effort by Great Barrington residents to overturn the town’s May vote to ban single use plastic water bottles has fallen short. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes reports from last night’s special town meeting.

Residents streamed into Monument Mountain Regional High School, spilling out of the rows of orange cushioned seats into the aisles.

“Could you please squeeze into the rows so we can get everybody in? There are still some people coming in from outside," asked Town moderator Michael Wise, who led the meeting from a podium at the front of the room.

“As I did in May," said Wise, "I would like to open with some words that are used in many New England town meetings: we have come together in civil assembly as a community in a tradition that is older than our state itself. We come together to make decisions about our community.”

Laura Keefner, who led the move to repeal the ban, spoke first.

“I move that the town repeal and rescind the sale of drinking water in single serve container bylaw and the amendment to Chapter 1-5.1 of the non-criminal disposition bylaw that were voted on by the May 7th, 2018 annual town meeting under article 22 of the warrant for that meeting,” said Keefner.

“Is there a second?” asked Wise.

“Second!” shouted a resident from the assemblage. 

“The motion has been made and seconded," said Wise.

With that, Keefner turned to her personal comment — which quickly underscored how divisive the ban has become in the town of about 7,000.

“I am not against the environment or kids or the world we live in as I have been accused of in social media and newspapers,” she said.

Keefner — who says she’s lived in Great Barrington for 45 years — said she started the petition to overturn the ban after speaking with fellow residents. Noting that the ban does not extend to soda or juice, she suggested alternative strategies to deal with water bottles without banning them — like incentivizing recycling.

“Water bottles in Connecticut, Maine, and New York to name a few have deposits on the water bottles — we should also,” she told the gathered residents.

Keefner also criticized the plan proposed by the Berkshire Women’s Action Group’s Environmental Committee, which pushed for the ban earlier this year.

“The water stations that are being proposed are expensive. Last I heard, financing was not in place for them. Who pays for those — the taxpayers? Who maintains them? Our water is metered. Who pays for the water?” she asked.

Jennifer Clark from the committee responded to those questions in her remarks against the repeal.

“Private grants and donations will be the first avenue for funding," she told the crowd. "The town will set up a water filling station fund for tax deductible contributions. Our DPW will maintain the equipment.”

She said the town’s ban is part of a larger effort.

“Great Barrington will join a global movement, two town-wide bans including Concord and Sudbury. 18 bans on municipal properties including Los Angeles and San Francisco. 90 universities and colleges including Harvard and Brandeis. Many parks, zoos, and hospitals,” said Clark.

The group’s plan for water filling stations in town is called GB On Tap, and Clark said the ban and the plan to supplant plastic water bottles puts Great Barrington at the vanguard of municipal environmentalism locally.

“This bylaw is a beginning," she said. "Our plastic bag bylaw encouraged other Massachusetts towns to follow suit. Our actions now will have a ripple effect. By upholding this bylaw, we will take an important step toward helping the environment.”

Other critics of the ban suggested it unfairly ignored the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities, and pointed out the dubious water quality available to residents of Housatonic — a village in Great Barrington. One speaker claimed the town would lose $1.4 million a year by banning the sale of the single use plastic water bottles.

But ultimately, the argument woven by supporters of the ban won out.

“The way I see it — it boils down to two choices. This is a worldwide movement, and it is a terrible, terrible problem," said resident Dana Dapolito. She says a plastic bottle ban is inevitable one way or another.

“Now we can be forward thinking. We can save the millions of plastic bottles that are discarded in Great Barrington a year, we can do it of our own volition, with the community pulling together to do the right thing. Or we can wait until the state tells us we have to do it, or the federal government tells us we have to do it. Because down the line, someone’s going to tell us we have to do it. I’d rather do it myself,” said Dapolito.

The two-thirds majority vote required to repeal the ban failed, with 296 residents voting against it and 199 for it.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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