751 intervention bill passes first votes

Jun. 27, 2013 @ 07:26 PM

N.C. House members gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would force Durham’s city government to extend water and sewer service to the controversial 751 South project.

The bill cleared the House Finance Committee on a vote of 24-8 and passed its first test on the House floor 73-31. Members have to vote again before they can send the measure to the state Senate.

Fierce debate preceded both of Thursday’s votes, with most Durham legislators arguing that intervention amounts to meddling by the General Assembly in a matter that state law authorizes Durham’s City Council to decide.

They received support from an Iredell County Republican, Rep. Robert Brawley, who said a similar development dispute is brewing in his community that could trigger another legislative intervention.

“Whenever you buy land, it’s a risky business – unless you’ve got the right political connections, if we pass this bill,” Brawley said, arguing the measure threatens to establish a statewide precedent.

Brawley broke with the House’s Republican leadership earlier this session over an unrelated dispute, and was forced to give up the chairmanship of the Finance Committee.

The potential precedent didn’t trouble GOP advocates of intervention in the 751 South dispute who said they were more bothered by the Durham council’s reluctance to embrace a project that could create jobs.

Several stopped just short of saying they consider the council’s opposition to the project irrational.

“There’s no reason, other than some odd politics in the city of Durham, why they would deny these developers access to water,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

Dollar and other intervention proponents signaled that they believe cities should only rarely, if at all, deny applications for utility extensions.

“Cities exist – as creatures of the General Assembly – to provide basic services,” Dollar said.

“If you don’t support this bill, that amounts to allowing a municipality to use water as a weapon against a development,” added Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe.

The legislator who spearheaded work on the bill, Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said he thinks it entirely appropriate for developers who encounter rejection at the local level to seek General Assembly intervention.

“The city’s basis [for denying 751 South] is the city just didn’t want the growth there; the way the city enforced it was to say you just can’t have water,” Moore said. “That’s something that should shock the conscience of every member of this House. When the landowners could not get relief at the local level, they did what they should do and appealed to their state government.”

Brawley’s point drew support at the committee level from Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, who said that the state traditionally has delegated utility decisions to city governments for a reason.

“We have since 1860-something allowed governments at that level to do a number of things under the theory they are best representative of the people because they are closer to the people,” Alexander said. “It’s a dangerous precedent we have begun to fall into, to bypass that level of local government to run willy-nilly to Raleigh for all kinds of things.”

Meanwhile, the Finance Committee debate highlighted a split in Durham’s legislative delegation, one apparently pitting five of its members against state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said the delegation had agreed to ask the committee to strip the bill of its 751-related provisions, leaving only unrelated, city-requested language that would expand its construction-contracting options.

But state McKissick demurred.

He said he’d promised Moore that he’d support the bill, if Moore agreed to provisions that protected the infrastructure concessions 751’s developers made to County Commissioners and Mayor Bill Bell in the course of trying to secure approval of their project.

Luebke and state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, both signaled that they felt McKissick in talking with Moore had been freelancing.

“This is [in] my district. And it is not in Sen. McKissick’s district on the Senate side,” Luebke said, adding that the City Council’s rejection of utilities was consistent with the wishes of his constituents and that Durham’s “entire House delegation” opposed intervention.

Michaux added that Durham legislators had agreed in caucus to try stopping intervention.

“That’s what we voted on,” he told McKissick during the Finance debate. “Don’t shake your head.”

McKissick afterward defended his actions and said that the delegation had been more divided than Michaux and Luebke were letting on.

“We were a 50-50 split two days ago,” McKissick said. “For Mickey or anybody to say they didn’t know what was going on, the mayor kept them in the loop and there were conversations with these members. They knew what was going. The whole world should have known it.”

He added that he worked with Moore because it’s obvious General Assembly Republicans will force the city to serve 751 South, one way or another.

“In an adverse situation, I’m getting best we can for the city of Durham,” McKissick said. I have no reason to believe that at any point this year, it wouldn’t have been a lopsided vote. I’m not delusional.”

One of the most vocal opponents of the project nonetheless criticized McKissick after the Finance hearing.

“If Floyd had been around in 1941, we’d all be speaking Japanese,” project critic Steve Bocckino said, alluding to that year’s attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan’s navy.

A lineup of the floor vote was not available as of press time.

The opponents of intervention on the Finance Committee were Luebke, Michaux, Alexander and Brawley, plus House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, and Reps. Grier Martin, D-Wake, Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg and Ken Waddell, D-Columbus.