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West Chester’s plastic-bag ban was ‘the right thing to do,’ officials say, even if it defies state law

West Chester's borough council voted for the ban just two weeks after the state's budget prohibited such measures.

Malena Martinez, the owner of Malena's Vintage Boutique, fills a re-usable paper bag inside her store. The boutique has been plastic free for three years, an early adopter of the philosophy behind a new ban on single-use plastics in the borough.
Malena Martinez, the owner of Malena's Vintage Boutique, fills a re-usable paper bag inside her store. The boutique has been plastic free for three years, an early adopter of the philosophy behind a new ban on single-use plastics in the borough.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

The West Chester Borough Council voted last month to ban single-use plastics, enacting an ordinance that directly defied a state law passed just two weeks before.

But in a town this progressive, one that recently added a sustainability director to its payroll, officials said it wasn’t a decision made out of spite.

“There was a tremendous outpouring from our community and beyond who wanted the borough to go ahead anyway and pass it,” said Mayor Dianne Herrin, an early proponent of the ban, first brought to the council in 2018 by a group of forward-thinking students from West Chester Friends School.

“Environmental concerns are top priority for the vast majority of our constituents here,” she said. “We were simply doing our job as local officials.”

The Chester County borough’s seven-member council had been working on the legislation, which prohibits plastic shopping bags and straws in local businesses, for the better part of a year. And throughout, there was unanimous support on the council.

That is, until June 28, when Gov. Tom Wolf signed the state budget. Buried inside Pennsylvania’s latest fiscal plan was an eleventh-hour amendment from Senate Republicans that prohibits municipalities from enacting bans on single-use plastics for a year while state officials study their potential economic impact.

West Chester went forward anyway. And, as the council took up the issue before a standing-room-only crowd on July 17, the measure eked through by one vote.

Don Braceland, a member of the council for five years, was prepared to vote against the measure, unwilling to open up the borough to potential legal retribution. But he had a change of heart, and became a crucial swing vote for the measure.

“Right before I said yes, I basically thought, ‘What the hell, it’s the right thing to do,’ ” Braceland said. “I realized the potential consequences, sure, but ultimately I knew this was the right thing to do.”

Braceland stressed that he’s not a “rabid environmentalist." But reading reports of whales beached with bellies full of plastic stirred him. It didn’t hurt, he said, that he was staring down dozens of people crammed into the council’s meeting room, including State Sen. Andy Dinniman and State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, both Chester County Democrats who have been outspoken on environmental issues.

“Everything takes time for people to get used to: 30 to 35 years ago, you could smoke anywhere,” he said. “You’d never see that happen today. It’s a question of changing attitudes, and I think it’s similar here.”

Ultimately, West Chester’s ban isn’t that blatant of a challenge to state law.

The ordinance was amended to take effect July 1, 2020, the same day the state’s moratorium is lifted. But the state measure specifically prevents towns from enacting legislation until then, leading some council members to change their votes. They pushed for delaying the ban to reach another goal: challenging an amendment they think improperly wrests control from local government.

“It was pretty clear from what the solicitor told us, that the council would be in a much stronger position as a plaintiff than a defendant,” Borough Council President Diane LeBold said. “Now we have an ordinance that doesn’t go into effect for a year, and we can’t enforce it anyway.”

“And we’re not in a position to challenge state law," she added.

Wolf’s office said Friday that it has no jurisdiction to challenge the ban — those legal battles would have to be brought by an individual or business. And Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said that the office would only act on any such challenge if directed by the governor.

In other words, there’s little momentum in Harrisburg to oppose West Chester’s ban, the second one voted into law in Pennsylvania, after Narberth blazed that trail in the fall.

READ MORE: How a Main Line town became the first in Pa. to ban plastic straws

“I’m hoping that other municipalities that are considering a ban will do what we failed to do, which is gather together to challenge state law instead of enacting a ban that is useless,” said LeBold, the council president.

“Because, in my mind, we’re up against an obstructionist mentality that tends to favor special interests [over] the community, and this needs to be challenged,” she said.

LeBold was referring to the moratorium added to the state budget, pushed heavily by State Sen. Jake Corman, the Centre County Republican who leads the Senate majority. Corman has said he was motivated by Hilex Poly, a plastic-bag manufacturer in his district that he said provides much-needed jobs.

“This is simply a fact-finding measure, something where we wanted to look at both the economic impacts and environmental impacts,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for Corman. “Our hope would be for people to wait until all of the facts come in before acting.”

This wasn’t the GOP’s first attempt at stopping local legislation on plastics. In 2017, Wolf shot down a previous amendment that was even more stringent, one that would have fully prevented municipalities from enacting plastics bans. The governor said he thought the measure was unconstitutional.

In the meantime, West Chester’s downtown businesses have started adopting the spirit of the council’s ban. Flagship stores, including Carlino’s Market and Iron Hill Brewery’s outpost in the borough, are eliminating plastics, according to LeBold.

“It’s important for people to know we’re not sitting on our hands, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for July,” she said. “Ban or no ban, we’re working with people in our community to eliminate the reliance on these products.”