Bill could overturn local environmental rules

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 01:30 PM

Prodded by a group of members that includes its majority leader, the state Senate is considering a bill that would bar cities and counties from enacting any environmental rule that’s more stringent than the state’s own.

The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday and is on its way to a floor vote in the near future.

Bill co-sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the measure is a response to complaints he and other legislators have heard about local rules that in some cases make it impossible to develop land.

“We want to go back and have a hard look at the rules put in place by cities and counties and see if they make sense any more,” Brown said, adding that he suspects few local regulations would actually conflict with the bill’s strictures.

Local-government advocates aren’t so sure.

The N.C. League of Municipalities is still trying to size up the potential impact on the environmental programs that cities and towns in the state are operating, said Erin Wynia, one of the group’s lobbyists.

But “we know it will likely have some unintended consequences,” Wynia said, adding that the bill would likely affect what cities and counties are doing to control erosion and on the water-and-sewage treatment front.

Durham City Attorney Patrick Baker deflected questions Friday about the bill’s potential impact on his city, asking for time to review the Senate’s draft. His counterpart in Chapel Hill, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, declined comment for similar reasons.

“We’re going to look at it,” Karpinos said.

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison said other local-government attorneys in the state are in positions similar to Baker and Karpinos of needing to study the measure before they can size up its local effect.

He argued that’s reason enough for the Senate to delay a vote.

“When a bunch of local lawyers can’t figure out what it means for local governments, to me that’s a signal the bill needs to be pulled and analyzed a lot more closely,” Harrison said.

Contributing to the confusion on Friday was the fact the Senate Commerce Committee recommended a modified version of the bill that narrowed the preemption language of the initial draft.

As filed, the measure would have barred cities and counties from passing anything in any field regulated by the state or federal governments that’s more stringent than state or federal statute or regulations.

Wynia said the League of Municipalities “raised concerns” about that with Senate leaders, who “worked with us to narrow the scope of that original proposal.”

She said the original draft, among other possibilities, would have limited the ability of local governments to regulate such things as adult establishments and cell-phone towers.

The new draft specifically limits preemption to environmental issues regulated by a list of agencies that starts with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

In the western Triangle, preemption clashes could center on issues of water pollution and watershed protection. Governments in both Durham and Orange counties in establishing buffers for streams and reservoirs have usually considered the state’s regulations the baseline rather than the final word on the anti-pollution state of the art.