Education, not prohibition. That was the message Concord Town Meeting sent Tuesday night, as members approved a resolution to educate citizens on the environmental dangers of bottled water but narrowly defeated a ban on selling it.
The vote was 272 opposed to the ban, and 265 in support.
"I'm obviously very disappointed," said Jean Hill, who placed the article on the ballot. "But I've been working on this issue for three years, and I don't intend to give up."
Hill spoke earlier in the evening in support of the article, citing environmental hazards posed by plastic water bottles and the cost and pollution associated with transporting bottled water. The bylaw would have prohibited the sale of water in single-serving plastic bottles.
"For the cost of a bottle of water, you can have 1500 glasses of Concord tap water, which is healthy and does not harm the environment," Hill said.
The ban would have been lifted at the discretion of the Concord Board of Selectmen in case of emergencies, and would not have applied to water sold in containers larger than one liter. The ban would have been enforced by periodic checks of Concord stores by the town's Health Department.
Last spring, residents approved a ban on the sale of bottled water by local stores, but the state attorney general's office decided that the measure was not written as a bylaw and could not be enforced.
Even if the new bylaw had passed and been approved by the state attorney general, it would almost certainly have subjected the town to a lawsuit from the bottled water industry, said Jeff Wieand, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. The selectmen did not make a recommendation on the article to Town Meeting.
"The cost of defending ourselves against such a lawsuit could be steep," Wieand said. "It's possible we could get a law firm to defend us pro bono, but if that didn't happen it would be a significant expense for the town."
Some residents, like Concord-Carlisle high school student Francesca Gentile, supported the ban. Gentile and other students were at Town Meeting distributing stickers for their student group in support of the article, Concord Backs the Tap.
"We conducted a blind taste test to see if people could tell the difference between Concord's tap water and bottled water, and they couldn't," Gentile said. "Most people carry reusable bottles. This is the right decision for the environment."
Others, like town resident Adriana Cohen, said that the bill would harm local businesses as well as erode personal liberty.
"This is a free country, and I have the right to purchase bottled water," Cohen said. "It is my decision to make and my job to make that decision for my family."
Beverage industry professionals from the group Bottled Water Matters were on hand to distribute literature arguing against the ban. One local beverage business owner, Thomas First, spoke at the beginning of the discussion, citing business and health concerns as reasons to vote against the ban.
"If people can't get what they want at a Concord store, they'll shop somewhere else, and when they go somewhere else for one thing they'll end up buying a lot of things," First said. "Additionally, people with diabetes and certain types of cancer are advised to drink bottled water, which I know because I deliver to hospitals."
Debate on the article took approximately an hour, before the vote was cast.
The citizen's petition on educating citizens of the value of eschewing bottled water for reusable bottles, however, was not as controversial, passing by a clear majority after only a short period of debate.
The resolution was the brainchild of Janet Lawson, a member of the Concord Climate Action Network.
"I proposed this because it was an alternative to a ban in that it was voluntary," Lawson said. "It's less draconian, and I'm thrilled it passed."
The resolution urges citizens to voluntarily stop purchasing single-serving bottled water and calls for an education campaign in the town and schools on the hazards of bottled water. It also urges the state to pass an Expanded Bottle Bill which would add a recycling deposit to water bottles.
Earlier in Town Meeting, members passed articles creating an emergency medical services revolving fund to cover payments to private ambulance services, a Radio Frequency Identification system (RFID) for the town's libraries, and to replace the Fire Department's aerial ladder truck.
Town Meeting also voted to restore 500 streetlights removed from Concord's roads last year with new lights that are more energy efficient.
Town Meeting resumes tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School.
Sarah Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.