At second night of annual town meeting, Great Barrington votes again to keep bottle ban

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It appears to be the final word, give or take some possible future amendments.

Voters on Tuesday, at a second night of annual town meeting, overwhelmingly supported a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles of 1 liter or less.

It was the second time that the ban was upheld since it was voted into law at the 2018 annual town meeting.

It took a total of seven hours over two nights to complete town business. Four hours Monday, in which 9 percent of the town's voters attended, wasn't enough.

On Tuesday, voters also approved some changes to what town officials say are zoning regulations that haven't adjusted to the modern economy. The changes will revamp laws that encourage an outdated approach to development, given the ongoing demise of bricks-and-mortar business.

But the plastic bottle ban was the most heated issue on the warrant.

While the ban is an attempt to curb the single-use-bottle phenomenon contributing to a clogged recycling system and global plastic emergency, opponents say that particular size is a bread-and-butter item for local businesses.

It is also a size that is easy for the elderly and disabled to manipulate and carry, said one resident whose brain injury has caused a motor disability that makes it hard to drink from reusable bottles.

Controversy around the ban has curdled into hostile divisions since it was approved last year. Voters approved it again in August, after the movement gained enough signatures for a special town meeting.

The ban includes an exception for emergencies, and will be enforced beginning May 1, 2020.

In March, the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women's Action Group, which sponsored the ban, announced that it had raised enough money to install three water bottle refill stations at Town Hall, the Mason Library and the Housatonic Community Center. The group will pay for a year's worth of maintenance costs, and it will be the town's responsibility after that.

More than 20 local businesses joined GB On Tap, agreeing to host refill stations. It is unclear whether the ban's sponsors will attempt a petition for a revote.

Steven Farina started the citizens petition to repeal the ban. At the meeting, he said the ban's harm to small businesses and the local economy far outweigh the benefits to the environment.

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"These are our neighbors," he said of business owners shown in a PowerPoint presentation. "These are our friends."

Farina said the ban is divisive and might force tourists to nearby towns "that make their stay less of a hassle."

Others wondered why confine a ban to the little bottles — why not ban other single-use plastic items in schools, and plastic bottles that contain things other than water, they asked.

"I don't want my teenagers dropping the water and buying the soda," said Sally Keyes, who recommended a more comprehensive study of the plastic waste problem.

Supporters of the ban say it is a crucial step, however small.

"The bottom is falling out of the recycling industry," said Jennifer Clark, who helped initiate the ban last year. "Meanwhile, our public water is clean."

Julie Berger, who suffers from a motor disability, said the ban would create another hardship for disabled people who are trying to live independently.

Eve Shatz suggested an amendment that would make exceptions to the ban for the disabled.

And Dimitri Koufis said local business owners can adjust by selling water in more environmentally sound containers.

"They can sell water in cardboard boxes — they can make a change as well," he said.

David Long said he thinks the ban and other containers will be a selling point for the town.

"It would do more to raise our profile as a forward-looking community," he said. "A lot of long-term gain for all of us."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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