Proposed rollback of local environmental rules clears state Senate

May. 05, 2013 @ 06:17 PM

State senators have passed and sent on to the N.C. House a bill that would bar cities and counties from enacting environmental regulations that are stricter than those the state has laid down.

The vote on the measure was 36-11, the dissenters including Sens. Eleanor Kinnaird, Floyd McKissick and Mike Woodard, the three Democrats who represent the western Triangle’s counties in the Senate.

Kinnaird is from Orange County; McKissick and Woodard are from Durham.

No Republicans voted against a measure Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, has said is supposed to take “a hard look at the rules put in place by cities and counties [to] see if they make sense any more.”

Five Democrats voted for Brown’s bill. Another Democrat absent for the final vote, Sen. Clark Jenkins of Edgecombe County, had supported it in preliminary balloting.

Two of the supporting Democrats, Sens. Ben Clark and Joel Ford, flip-flopped on the measure, opposing it in an early vote before favoring its final passage. Clark is from Hoke County; Ford is from Mecklenburg County.

Brown’s bill has attracted sharp criticism from urban-area political leaders and environmentalists.

The N.C. League of Municapalities said Friday the bill “would destroy the ability of cities and towns to protect property from flooding and run other required environmental programs such as those that protect sewers from backing up into homes and businesses.”

Durham officials are still trying to figure how the bill will affect local regulations.

A memo from the city’s Public Works Department that compiled reactions from a number of department officials cited particular worry about the city’s handling of anti-pollution regulations for the Jordan Lake watershed.

There, for lands south of the Durham Freeway, the city is already trying to see to it that new development curbs emissions of two key nutrients even though the state, at the behest of upstream legislators, has delayed by two years the deadlines for compliance.

If the city has to go along with the state’s later deadlines, the bill could wind up “burdening Durham’s landowners [and] taxpayers with even higher” compliance costs, subsiding developers who can escape them during the two-year window, the Public Works memo said.

More broadly, Public Works officials fretted that the bill could actually produce results counter to Brown’s intent by making the local regulatory process more difficult for developers to navigate.

Given that the city often has to reconcile conflicting regulations issued by the state and the federal government, it could be forced to “adopt different ordinances for each regulatory requirement with which we are trying to comply” and thus make the local rulebook more confusing than it is now, one department official said.

At the state level, meanwhile, the bill is drawing fire for other provisions that require the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and several other agencies to roll back their own regulations to the federal minimum.

That’s also a recipe for chaos because federal regulations often have gaps in them that states are supposed to fill, said Robin Smith, a former DENR assistant secretary for environmental matters.

“All federal environmental laws assume – and in many cases require – that individual states will tailor the federal program to address conditions in the state,” Smith said in a blog posting. “Since you won’t find estuaries in Arizona, that state’s Clean Water Act program does not look like North Carolina’s program.”

But another observer, former Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau President Reyn Bowman, said the Senate leadership is acting on its ideological beliefs.

Powerful General Assembly Republicans “still hold views of the natural world that date to the late 1700s and 1800s,” a time “when nature was viewed primarily as something God placed on earth for us to exploit” and saw “the natural world as ‘waste,’ Bowman said in a posting to his Bull City Mutterings blog.