Two Waldo County towns are set to consider adopting policies that fall broadly under the legally questionable and historically novel definition of “rights-based” rules.

The Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance in Montville and proposed actions in Freedom relating to corporate personhood and water extraction aren’t the first of their kind, even in Waldo County, but they come at a potential tipping point for local rules that challenge higher branches of government and corporations.

Rights-based ordinances are novel in that they attempt to supersede state and federal laws residents deem infringe too closely on individual rights.

Maine Municipal Association and attorneys consulted during the planning stages of various local rights-based initiatives have repeatedly said they don’t stand a chance in court, but that hasn’t kept residents from passing them, either in hopes that their towns will back them up, or as symbolic gestures.

In Waldo County, Montville has been among the more aggressive towns in pursuing rules that protect local autonomy and the rights of individuals. The town enacted a moratorium on genetically-modified crops in 2008. Years earlier, residents passed what could be considered a precursor to today’s rights-based ordinances when they placed restrictions on how low helicopters could fly during searches for marijuana farms.

Last March, Sedgwick became the first of five Maine towns to pass a Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance. The name and basic format would be adopted by other towns, including eventually Montville.

Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton and Hope followed Sedgwick, and several municipalities in other states have adopted their own versions of Local Food and Self-Governance rules.

Monroe voted down a similar ordinance last June, possibly because the proposed ordinance was too broad. The Monroe Farm and Garden Ordinance contained the exemptions for small farmers seeking to sell directly to consumers typical of the rules in Sedgwick and other towns, but also included a provision protecting local farmers from liability in the event that patented GMO seeds blew into their fields.

Of the new breed of local agricultural rules, none had been tested until last November, when the state Department of Agriculture summoned Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown for selling raw milk without proper disclosure labeling.

Several months earlier, Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb had sent letters to some municipalities warning that state law would pre-empt the new local ordinances.

“They were reiterating what we thought we knew anyway,” said Blue Hill selectman John Bannister.

Speaking on Feb. 29, Bannister said the selectmen made it clear to residents before the vote for the Local Food ordinance last April that they didn’t think it could be enforced and were not willing to put town resources behind it. As Bannister recalled, some residents felt it was important to pass the ordinance anyway, to “send a message” to Augusta.

It apparently worked.

After Brown was summoned, Whitcomb told the Bangor Daily News that there was no connection between Brown’s prosecution and the newly-minted ordinance in Blue Hill that ostensibly protected him.

But many farmers have suggested that the state was looking to test the local rules.

And given the position of local select boards, the towns don’t appear likely to stand behind the self-governance ordinances.

Hope Town Administrator Jonathan Duke expressed a similar sentiment to Bannister about his own town’s Local Food ordinance, approved by voters last June.

“The selectmen felt that the way the ordinance was written, the town is not obligated in any way to defend citizens operating under that ordinance,” he said.

In Montville, where residents are preparing to vote on a similar ordinance, news of the Dan Brown case spooked some people who had previously supported taking a stand on the issue, according to G.W. Martin, who is spearheading the Montville movement.

Martin said some of his fellow farmers see Blue Hill as having drawn attention to itself and to a system that was functioning well already, if only through lax enforcement of regulations.

The fact that the state went after a farmer with a single cow has sent the chilling message to some that no farm is too small to escape state oversight.

Martin doesn’t disagree that passing an ordinance could draw attention to small farm sales in Montville, but he believes that’s all the more reason to do it. The choice he said is between standing up for the principles he and other farmers believe in or shrinking into the shadows of black market economy.

While the local ordinances may not hold water in court, Martin argued that enough of them could lead to a shift in state policy.

“Quite possibly once 50 towns vote in the ordinance, they’ll listen. And they’ll definitely listen when those 50 towns start voting in new legislators,” he said, laughing. “Maybe that’s when the true listening will start.”

At the core of the discussion around unlicensed sales by small farmers is the point at which food safety regulations begin to creep into transactions that were once considered neighborly.

Martin, who raises hogs, offered the example of bringing some of the sausage he makes on his farm to a neighboring dairy farm and trading the sausage for raw milk. In this transaction, both food products would be going directly from producer to consumer, and yet Martin said both farms would need to be licensed as distributors in order for the trade to be legal.

The cost of the license itself is minimal but for many farmers bringing their equipment up to specifications is where the expense lies.

But at the core of Martin’s complaint is an affront to the reasons he got involved in farming in the first place.

“In the past, we’d grow victory gardens and feed each other the best we could,” he said. “Now 50 years later, we see the government getting in the way of what used to be the traditional way.”

A resolution in Freedom that would call on Congress to reject the concept of corporate personhood is not technically a rights-based ordinance, but the move appears to be in the same spirit as an ordinance approved by Monroe residents in 2010 that rejected the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted corporations the same rights as people.

A closer comparison, considering that Freedom is also revising its commercial development review ordinance with a mind to rules governing water extraction, would be the anti-corporate personhood ordinances passed in Shapleigh and Newfield in 2009. The ordinances were passed in an effort to block water extraction by Poland Spring bottler Nestlé Waters N.A.

Monroe residents cited Shapleigh and Newfield in discussions of their “Town of Monroe Local Self-Government Ordinance,” but there were no known plans for water extraction in the town at the time.

The issue is not as abstract in Freedom. The town currently has no rules governing water extraction. VillageSoup reported last July on the aspirations of David Pottle of Albion and Tony McFarland of Augusta to bottle water from an artesian aquifer on property Pottle owns in Freedom.

Citizens interested in governing water extraction in Freedom have reportedly consulted with Chris Buchanan of the advocacy group Defending Water for Life, which worked with residents of Barnstead, N.H., to develop an ordinance similar to those regulating water extraction in southern Maine. VillageSoup left a message for Buchanan but did not immediately hear back.

Unlike the agricultural ordinances, which to date appear to be symbolic, the Shapleigh Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance and its Newfield counterpart led to NestlĂ©’s withdrawal from the region.

Rights-based ordinances denying corporate personhood have been passed in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Wells, N.Y., in attempts to stop oil and natural gas extraction using the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Maine has led the charge on agricultural self-governance ordinances. Whether the new local rules amount to empty resolutions or tip the balances toward looser regulations for small farmers remains to be seen.