Ban on plastic bags debated by Selectmen, business owners

Ban could be on Special Town Meeting warrant in the fall

By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer

AUBURN — Selectmen are seeking additional public input as they weigh one member’s draft proposal of a plastic bag bylaw.

The Board of Selectmen held a public hearing Monday evening regarding the ban proposed by Selectman Tristan J. LaLiberte. Selectmen voted, 4-0, to keep the public hearing open so it may be renewed at a later date. Several local business owners spoke in opposition to the proposal while one resident expressed his disappointment that officials have failed to act in time to place the matter on the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting.

Selectman Tristan J. LaLiberte spent six months studying and writing a proposed ban on plastic bags.

Mr. LaLiberte’s draft bylaw proposal would force local retailers to provide either reusable bags or paper bags rather than plastic bags. He said he spent six months studying the issue by looking at research across the country as well as personally interviewing officials in other Massachusetts communities that have banned plastic bags. Mr. LaLiberte said there are 61 communities across the state with a ban currently, including the Worcester County towns of Athol, Grafton and Shrewsbury. Additionally, officials noted, legislators on Beacon Hill are currently debating a statewide ban that would supersede any local ordinances. The states of California and Hawaii have plastic bag bans.

First-time violators of the ban would be issued a warning, with a $25 fine for second offenses, and $50 fines for third and subsequent offenses, if the bylaw were to be adopted. The Board of Health would be tasked with enforcing the regulations and would be empowered to close any retail business that has failed to pay fines associated with violations.

While the proposed ban would prohibit plastic shopping bags at retailers and restaurants, Mr. LaLiberte said it would not include plastic bags designed specifically for dry cleaning, newspapers, garbage or animal waste collection. Through a PowerPoint presentation, he outlined the environmental hazards of plastic bags and cited one study that claims the average use of a plastic bag, including reuse, is about 12 minutes. Additionally, the elimination of plastic bags would save the town money, Mr. LaLiberte theorized, due to reductions in clogged storm drains, litter cleanup and production of solid waste.

Several business owners said that while they recognize Auburn is a green community, they are opposed to the possible banning of plastic bags.

Chad Clark, owner of Sheldon’s Harley-Davidson, voiced “strong opposition” to the proposal, citing limitations placed on his business as a franchisee of the renowned motorcycle manufacturer. Seeking a local company to print Harley-Davidson logos on paper bags would violate copyright laws, putting both himself and the printer in legal trouble.

“Harley-Davidson’s most important asset is the brand recognition and they fight fiercely to protect it daily,” Mr. Clark explained. “Harley-Davidson has strong restrictions on who is authorized to print their logo on products in order to control the integrity of the brand.”

Mr. Clark, who has owned and operated the motorcycle franchise in Auburn since 1998, said any additional costs incurred in replacing plastic bags with paper bags would be passed on to the consumer.

“I strongly urge you to reconsider your proposal given the limitations which many businesses have to adhere to and the ultimate cost to the consumer,” he said. “The citizens of Auburn will be the one to ultimately suffer from your proposal.”

Steve Herbert, owner of X Fire Paintball & Airsoft, said he had looked into the costs of switching to paper bags and found it would cost him nearly four times as much money, and that additional stipulations within the proposed bylaw would actually push that cost even higher. Ultimately, he said, it would put his small business as a disadvantage against similar storefronts or online retailers that do not need to comply with the local bylaw.

“I compete against other brick and mortar stores as well as online retailers. They don’t have those costs, so other stores in Massachusetts as well as other states, my online competitors, do not have these costs,” Mr. Herbert said. “I think it’s unfair to not have a level playing field when I have to compete against these other retailers. This is giving retailers in Auburn an unfair cost.”

Auburn resident Alan Rafferty asserted “without a doubt that plastic bags should be banned.”

Paul Street resident and ban supporter Alan Rafferty, however, pointed out that the common citizenry of Auburn was not represented at the meeting.

“I hope I’m not the only who is going to speak in favor of the ban tonight,” said as he approached the lectern to address Selectmen. “I hope there is someone else here. There aren’t a lot of residents here, it’s mostly businessmen.”

Mr. Rafferty said the evidence provided by Mr. LaLiberte’s presentation “proves without a doubt that plastic bags should be banned.”

Chamber of Commerce officials disagreed.

Virginia Parent, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s liaison to the Auburn Chamber of Commerce, read a prepared statement in opposition to the proposal.

“The Auburn Chamber of Commerce wishes to express its strong concern with the proposal of a plastic bag ban and the costs and unanticipated consequences this will bring unto retail businesses in the town of Auburn,” Ms. Parent said. “While we can understand the desire to reduce litter in our community, that policy would place local family-owned businesses at a competitive disadvantage while competing against similar retailers in neighboring communities as well as online sellers. It is not the manner in which to address the problem.”

Stuart Loosemore, general counsel and director of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, questioned provisions of the bylaw and billed it as “a drastic cost” for business owners.

Mr. LaLiberte cited a study by the Equinox Center in California that reported one plastic bag cost retailers about one cent per piece, whereas paper bags cost roughly 15 cents each. He noted a study conducted by the New York State Legislature had a similar finding on the cost of a plastic bag, but that paper bags were five or six cents each, pennies more if a handle was attached.

Selectmen said that Mr. LaLiberte provided a draft proposal of the bylaw Feb. 26, but that the panel was not prepared to take action until additional input from the general public has been received. Mr. Rafferty charged such a delay was a “duck and cover” maneuver to avoid taking a public stance on the matter

prior to annual town elections and to prevent it from going before the Annual Town Meeting.

“I’m disappointed that the current Board of Selectmen will not take a stand on this issue tonight and instead hold a public hearing after the warrant for town meeting has been closed,” Mr. Rafferty said. “Town Meeting will not be given a chance to vote on this issue, so all you businessmen really don’t have to worry for now.”

He continued: “Despite the fact that other progressive communities have banned the bags, or allowed a vote on this issue, despite the fact that the Democratic State Legislature is working on bills that ban this health hazard, Auburn Selectmen have gone silent on this issue by not proposing a bylaw for town meeting to vote on. Perhaps it is because an election is coming, and the selectmen have chosen to duck and cover.”

Selectmen refuted Mr. Rafferty’s charges.

Vice Chairman Kenneth A. Holstrom, who said he is up for re-election this year, asserted no political maneuvering was at play, but rather an interest to gather more feedback from the community as a whole.

“I think it would be irresponsible of me to make a decision tonight, right in front of you with 20 or 30 people in this room and 20 to 30 people that we’ve had responses from. The town has over 16,000 people and I’m ready to listen some more, so I’m not ready to make a decision one way or another,” Mr. Holstrom said. “I want to hear some more information. I want to hear from you.”

Mr. Holstrom did note that he plastic bags are “pretty convenient for a lot of people to use” and that requiring more expensive paper bags could lead to “kind of a snowball effect and everybody’s going to be affected by going up prices.”

Selectman Daniel S. Carpenter agreed, noting the banning of plastic bags was first brought forward as an idea by Mr. LaLiberte in August 2017, and officials agreed to allow research of the issue, but at no time was there a vote to draft new local legislation. Furthermore, Mr. Carpenter asserted, with state officials debating a statewide ban, pursuing a local ban may prove a needless use of time, energy and resources.

“It would be wasteful of our time and efforts and taxpayer dollars to presume to supersede the legislature when as we know they have pretty big shoes and they actually rule the whole Commonwealth. We just have a small town to worry about,” Mr. Carpenter said.

Mr. LaLiberte noted “There is no guarantee one way or the other what the Legislature is going to do.”

Selectmen Chairwoman Doreen M. Goodrich, who applauded the “yeoman’s work” done by Mr. LaLiberte on the matter, said the debate “has just started.” She also said the hope would be to place the proposal on the fall’s Special Town Meeting warrant, if approved by Selectmen.

“We need to take this slowly, [and] solicit input,” she explained.


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