BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS: -
02.18.05 NOW Transcript
Corporation Has More Rights than 5,600 Citizens
Local communities around the country are facing off against corporations over cell towers, super stores and stone quarries. Who wins and who loses?
FRED WALLS: If this corporation is more important than 5,600-odd citizens, then I'm not sure democracy stands much of a chance.
I'm reporting from St. Thomas, Pennsylvania. There is some history here. In the summer of 1863, at the height of the Civil War, a Confederate Army marched through these parts on the way to confront Union troops at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Now, there are new battle lines being drawn through St. Thomas, pitting the rights of a corporation against those of the community and some of its elected officials — and so far, the corporation is winning. Peter Meryash produced our report.
If you were to drive along the nation's first transcontinental highway through the rural, central Pennsylvania township of St. Thomas, you'd be forgiven for thinking all is peaceful. It's a quiet, conservative community of six thousand or so people.
But stop and listen. What you'll hear is a dispute that has many locals fired up: a dispute with implications for communities across the nation.
KEITH LASLOW: Let's be professional. I know it is a hot issue here in your township, and we want to take everything into consideration.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The St. Thomas Development has deprived our right to be self-governed.
MALE SPEAKER: I think DEP better forget about the book smarts, and use some common sense and think about this quarry coming in, it is a bad place for it.
BRANCACCIO: What's this all about?
It started with a plan to dig a limestone quarry here … which many residents worry will change the character of the town.
FRAN CALVERASE: The immediate reaction was-- "well a quarry is a big hole in the ground." It's right next to the village of St. Thomas and that really doesn't look good. And then when we started doing the research, we found out that not only did it not look good, but it wasn't going to be good.
BRANCACCIO: But the fight in St. Thomas township over a quarry is part of something far bigger and stranger.
A battle being waged around the country that pits a community's right to make fundamental decisions about proposed development against a corporation's right to develop land it owns the way it sees fit. In this case a quarry, but it might be a liquor store or even a "big box" retailer.
FRED WALLS: There's 5,600 and some odd citizens here. If this corporation is more important than 5,600-odd citizens, then I'm not sure democracy stands much of a chance.
BRANCACCIO: It all started nearly two years ago, where 416 acres of mainly apple orchards currently stand. The parcel was bought by St. Thomas Development Incorporated, a subsidiary of a Philadelphia area real-estate and construction company.
The company has proposed building a quarry on the land digging a pit two hundred eighty feet deep that will spread over almost 90 acres and is expected to produce half a million tons of limestone every year over the next decades. The project eventually could include a concrete and an asphalt plant as well.
The company says the project will generate as many as twenty-one jobs and produce the raw material needed to build roads and homes.
But "how would it affect the quality of life?" asks a group of several dozen concerned residents. They call themselves FROST or Friends and Residents of St. Thomas Township.
PAT WALLS: A group of people who live right here just got together to see what we could do to get the facts, because they weren't telling us. Everything was hush, rush, and get in and get established before anybody realized it.
BRANCACCIO: To learn more about quarries, the members of FROST did some digging of their own. Their worries?
Air and noise pollution from the blasting and rock crushing, heavy traffic as trucks make some 200 trips a day in and out of the quarry. They're worried the quarry might lower the water level affecting the local aquifer and wells and they're worried about the value of their property dropping.
FRED WALLS: We were kind of looking at this house just to stay here for, you know, retire out of it.
BRANCACCIO: Fred and Pat Walls live right across the street from the proposed quarry.
FRED WALLS: And, now with the quarry across the road I'm not sure it's gonna — you know it's gonna be an option.
BRANCACCIO: What's more, the proposed quarry site is located a thousand feet from the township's elementary school.
TOM STAPLEFORD: If I had the capability to pick up my school and move it a different location, I would do that. That's how strongly we feel.
BRANCACCIO: Dr. Thomas Stapleford is superintendent for the school district.
TOM STAPLEFORD: My concern and my responsibility is to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the students and staff here. And I'm not confident that I can do that 100 percent.
BRANCACCIO: Dr. Stapleford says with the school so close to the proposed quarry the prevailing winds here could quickly bring dust and other things kids might do better not to breathe.
STAPLEFORD: There's a particular concern with the possibility of silicates and silicate dust. That can be particularly harmful to children as their pulmonary systems develop.
BRANCACCIO: And here's where a quarry story becomes a story about democracy both in this township and across the nation.
With no zoning ordinance on the books to restrict a quarry, township supervisors told the members of FROST, they couldn't stop the project.
FRAN CALVERASE: They should've been looking at that as a quality of life issue for our people. And they wouldn't do it.
BRANCACCIO: Fran Calverase is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who now serves as FROST's president.
FRAN CALVERASE: Essentially their response was: 'Well there's really nothing that we can do.'
BRANCACCIO: Enter Frank Stearn, part-owner of a local computer and electronics company. Stearn, at the time a member of FROST, decided to run for office in the upcoming election for township supervisor.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Was it fair to say that you were the anti-quarry candidate?
FRANK STEARN: I guess to a certain extent you could say that my campaign was a referendum of sorts on this particular issue.
BRANCACCIO: Stearn didn't think of himself as a political activist. A Republican, he had once served with the local Chamber of Commerce but had never run for office before. With a month to go before the election, he started campaigning as a write-in candidate.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: It was a bit quixotic this undertaking of yours. What are the odds that a write in candidate like yourself could be successful?
FRANK STEARN: Well I had no idea at the time until I guess we won and I found out that actually the odds were like somewhere around one percent that a write in candidate can actually succeed. And we did it in a month.
BRANCACCIO: Stearn narrowly defeated his incumbent opponent. But the victory celebration didn't last long.
On February 18, 2004, at Stearn's first meeting as supervisor in came a bombshell: a letter warning him not to vote or even speak about the quarry proposal, or else.
FRANK STEARN: This letter basically states that if I vote in any matters concerning the quarry the threat-- there's a sincere threat to litigate immediately because they do not believe that I am capable of voting in a fair manner.
BRANCACCIO: The letter from the quarry company's lawyer stated: "… it would be in the best interests of all concerned that Mr. Stearn recuse himself … from voting … upon any issue that involves my client's quarry, concrete plant, and asphalt plant project …"
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But I thought you were elected on this platform and it would be I guess your duty to vote on this. What kind of argument could you make about you voting on an issue that you had run on?
FRANK STEARN: I guess they really just didn't want to see me voting on this issue.
BRANCACCIO: If Stearn did not recuse himself, the letter went on … the township could be exposed to "… liability …" and any votes on the quarry could end up "… void as a matter of law."
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Does it have an immediate effect? Do you think it changes your behavior or what the township council does?
FRANK STEARN: Oh absolutely. It was very chilling. I mean let me tell you that it's your first day on the job, you know you've-- come to work, you're looking to do a good job for the township and what you've run into is this kind of you know sledgehammer in your forehead And clearly the township felt threatened. We're a relatively small community and you suddenly realize that you're facing- the potential of serious economic damage.
BRANCACCIO: And because of that, the man who was elected on an anti-quarry platform is now afraid to do his job. He's recused himself from voting on anything related to the quarry.
Neither the company nor its attorney was able to schedule an interview with us. But the situation has left Stearn wondering: whatever happened to the idea of government by the people?
DAVID BRANCACCIO: So whether or not one supports or opposes this quarry there becomes a different issue, which is it right that a person who's elected to serve in this capacity, an elected official, should be forced to keep his mouth shut not even by a lawsuit, by just the raising of an issue of a lawsuit.
FRANK STEARN: That is a very good question. I mean clearly it does not speak well to most people's understanding of how democracy works.
BRANCACCIO: Here's a lesson on how, some say, democracy works these days companies often come into town to build maybe a big, name-brand chain store, a cell phone tower, or a giant hog farm and threaten, or bring lawsuits that can chill community opposition.
And those companies are acting well within their rights, says Timothy Sandefur, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation which, among other things, defends property rights.
TIMOTHY SANDEFUR: The majority isn't always right. We have a constitution precisely to protect the minority against the majority. And when that means protecting a corporation against a large number of voters, then that-- then that's right. That's the way it should be.
BRANCACCIO: The US Supreme Court first recognized in the 1800s that corporations have Constitutional rights when it decided a corporation is a person covered in the eyes of the law by many of the same rights as individuals including those of the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments.
That meant guarantees, among other things, for due process, equal protection of the laws, and property rights.
TIMOTHY SANDEFUR: If the business buys that land, they have the right to do with that land what they want to. And if the community comes in and passes a law saying they can't do that, they're depriving that business of property. And that's unconstitutional, and illegal, and it's wrong. Because that property belongs to that company. Now you say, "Well, it's just a company." Well, yeah-- it's a company that's a group of individuals who have invested their money in order to make a living.
BRANCACCIO: It's a battle happening all across the country.
For example, in Turlock, California last year, the city council banned big box stores when Wal-Mart wanted to build one. The company is now in court claiming, among other things, a violation of its Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
TIMOTHY SANDEFUR: And no majority has any right to deprive people of that-- of those rights. Even if the people who exercise those rights decide to do so in the form of a corporation. People have the right to do business. They have the right to use property. They have the right to go into business for themselves, to make a living for themselves and their families. And if they decide to do that by creating a corporation, they should not have the government come along and take their property away and call them evil, greedy, profit-grabbing enterprises, and so forth.
BRANCACCIO: This man couldn't disagree more. Attorney Thomas Linzey represents the members of FROST. He says that the legal rights claimed by corporations often outweigh the rights of regular people making the corporation into a kind of "super-citizen."
TOM LINZEY: Decisions made by corporations and the corporate few that run them every day are trumping the rights of the majority at the local level to make decisions about what they want their communities to look like in 20, 40, or 50 years.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You don't want a system of law set up that's sort of whimsical. It doesn't seem crazy that corporations have some kind of rights.
TOM LINZEY: Well, it depends on who defines fair. If we take seriously this contention that people are the source of all governing authority and should be able to make decisions about investments and production and labor and whether a quarry comes into a specific area or a corporate hog farm comes into an area, the question is who do you want making those decisions? Do you want the few who are coming into vacuum out the resources of a particular area? Or do you want decisions made by the many at the local level?
BRANCACCIO: But in the case of St. Thomas township, the local official was stopped from even making the decision. The letter from the quarry company's lawyer alleged "… bias …" because Mr. Stearn had campaigned on the issue … and that if he even voted "… against the project … [it] would be viewed as discriminatory in nature."
That claim might or might not hold up in court. But as Thomas Linzey sees it, the threat of a lawsuit is backed up by the company's deep pockets and elected officials can't afford that risk.
TOM LINZEY: There's something wrong here when a corporation can nullify an election. Nullify an election, that's what we're talking about, fundamental Constitutional rights of people to elect the folks that they want into office to represent them. And a corporation, three individuals who run the company, coming in and telling the 5,800 people in this township that they can't get what they want. It's a fundamental breach. And it's incompatible with the basic founding values of this country.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: I guess the lesson here is that candidates should keep their mouths shut in campaigns about potentially controversial issues lest they be seen as biased upon election.
TOM LINZEY: Taken to its logical conclusion and believing that corporations are persons and have these Constitutional rights that they're clothed in, that's where-- that's where this leads. That's where this leads.
I mean, there are thousands of single issues across this country, whether it's Wal-Mart, whether it's incinerators coming in, whether it's other things that people don't want their community to be transformed by, that under this logic, carried to its logical extreme, which is you can't interfere with corporate Constitutional rights by making statements before you're elected because you may take a position on it after you're elected-- that it would-- it basically emasculates anyone who wants to run on issues dealing with corporations. And the question is how badly do we believe in democracy to not allow that to happen.
BRANCACCIO: Linzey asks people that question at weekend-long seminars across the country, called Democracy Schools.
Linzey lives near St. Thomas, but for this meeting, he's in New Mexico looking to rally citizens to his cause and to ignite a political movement to fundamentally shift what he considers a gross imbalance of power.
TOM LINZEY: It means questioning these 200 years of beautifully structured law in this country that has somehow stolen Constitutional rights from us and bestowed them upon corporations to run communities. That's the question.
BRANCACCIO: He's got a big task in front of him fighting years of "well-established" law and the fact that there are flesh and blood shareholders, employees and executives who's interests corporations also represent.
TIMOTHY SANDEFUR: It's simply not true that corporations have too many Constitutional rights. Corporations and economic liberties, and the right to private property, which are protected again and again in the actual words of the Constitution, have been ignored and treated like poor relations for 70 years.
BRANCACCIO: But it's the citizens of St. Thomas Township who are on the front lines of this battle now.
FRAN CALVERASE: The corporations in general have tremendous amount of power in the United States. We gotta have corporations, but we don't have to have corporations that run roughshod over the people.