Freeport to hold nonbinding referendum on bag fee

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FREEPORT — A proposed fee on single-use shopping bags will go to a nonbinding town-wide referendum.

Councilors on Oct. 20 approved sending the proposed 5-cent fee for plastic and paper bags to voters. The advisory question will help councilors decide whether to enact the fee.

Councilors didn’t decide when the referendum will be held, but it will not be on the Nov. 3 ballot. 

The fee recommendation was made to the Town Council by the Ordinance Committee, which includes Councilors Sarah Tracy, Andy Wellen and Scott Gleeson.

“We have struggled with this issue,” Tracy said. “It’s been a very difficult issue to come to a conclusion on.”

The committee made the recommendation by a 2-1 vote; Gleeson wants to only charge a fee for plastic bags. On Oct. 20 he said he didn’t want residents to be forced to pay for bags, and wants to give them one free option.

Tracy said she thinks it’s important for both paper and plastic bags to have a fee attached.

“Our concern was that if you just address one type of single-use bag, you basically then shift everybody over to the other, and our analysis at the end was that we should address both types of single-use bags in order to encourage the use of reusable bags,” she said.

Tracy said the hope is people would use reusable bags, but the fee “gives people the opportunity to just incur the cost.” She said the fee would “be loosely modeled” on the one adopted in Portland, which went into effect in April.

“There’s value in being consistent from town to town in how we’re addressing this issue,” she said.

In Freeport the fees wouldn’t apply to retail stores and would only be on bags at stores that sell packaged food, such as Shaw’s, CVS, and the Bow Street Market. Councilors didn’t say where the fees would go.

The town first began exploring a ban or fee on single-use bags in July 2014, when two high school students asked councilors to look into the issue and write an ordinance. The students said they thought the ordinance would help protect the environment, which Tracy agreed with last week.

Tracy said the purpose of putting a fee on single-use bags would be “to reduce the presence of plastic, both in our landscape as litter and also in microplastics in our environment,” and “for purposes of encouraging actions that reduce climate change,” and because “the life cycle of producing paper bags also has an adverse affect on the environment.”

According to councilors, if the vote is held at a special election, it would cost the town $3,000-$5,000, but would cost a few hundred dollars if held during a regular election.

“I would recommend it happens at the presidential election in November (2016), because that’s where you get the best cross section of folks,” Wellen said.

Some councilors said the issue should not go to referendum.

“We have been elected to make decisions on complicated and controversial issues and we are best suited to make this decision,” Councilor Kristina Egan, who was absent from the meeting, said in a letter.

Councilors Jim Hendricks and Bill Rixon agreed, but the recommendation passed 4-2.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.