Budget Would Curtail Land Buys

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, North Carolina’s premiere source of land-conservation money, is once again the target of budget-slashing legislators. N.C. House members last week shaved 75 percent off the $100 million that, by state law, the fund is due.

But the fund is also an example of this session’s special brand of in-your-face environmental legislation.

Some bills, for the first time in memory, have attempted to eliminate the jobs of “adversarial” state regulators. Others would place critical limits on key existing environmental laws.

A provision attached to the House budget, for example, prevents trust-fund acquisitions in counties where state or federal governments own 40 percent or more of the land.

Swain and Macon counties, site of one of the state’s highest conservation priorities, fit that description. The trust fund board last week gave initial approval to a $6 million grant to help buy the 4,400 acres of wilderness there, along the Little Tennessee River.

The trust-fund measure was later softened to allow acquisitions if county commissioners approve. Broad public support has greeted the purchase of the Needmore tract, as the mountain property is known, making the budget provision an unlikely handicap.

Rep. Roger West, the Cherokee County Republican who sponsored the provision, said he’s against more government acquisitions in mountain counties dominated by national forests and parks that are exempt from county property taxes.

West made another point via legislation. This one was about state environmental officials, who he said are too slow to issue permits and too fast to levy fines.

He sponsored a budget provision that would eliminate the job of a regional air-quality supervisor who fined a contracting company from West’s district $78,000 last year.

West said he filed the provision because Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials wouldn’t discuss the fine with him. The House co-speakers killed his measure last week.

West’s name also appeared on a bill, sponsored by Rep. Connie Wilson, R-Mecklenburg, that would essentially fire two “adversarial” state wetlands officials. That measure will be withdrawn, West said.

“It seems like they’re not pro-environment but anti-progress,” West said of the environmental officials. “I’m hearing from people in the mountains who can’t get development projects done. It seems like there’s a problem that needs to be looked into. They’re holding up progress, and progress is something I like.”

Advocates haven’t seen so many anti-environmental measures since 1995, when property-rights supporters threatened to block legislation, said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.

One possible explanation: A large number of new legislators and the unusual situation of co-speakers leading the House, she said, may give interest groups higher hopes of influencing lawmakers.

Diggins attributes chafing over environmental permits, in part, to chronically understaffed state agencies. Permit fees, which help pay for staff, haven’t increased since 1989.

“Most often,” Diggins added, “it’s people not really wanting to abide by their permits.”

It’s deja vu for some measures emerging this spring.

Wilson sponsored a bill that requires state agencies to consider the economic impact of new rules on small business, and forbids state rules that are tougher than federal law. The last provision reminds old-timers of the so-called Hardison amendments, which forbade stronger state environmental rules than the feds’ rules.

The legislature repealed those limits in 1991. In the mid-1990s, responding to pollution from hog farms, the state adopted new tougher rules that Wilson’s bill would have prevented.

Property rights also bubbled up again this year, for the sixth time, by Diggins’ count.

A bill Wilson co-sponsored would make local governments pay “just compensation” for billboards or other structures they want removed. It also says giving billboard owners a period of years in which to remove their signs, a typical approach, doesn’t count as compensation.

The anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy rallied around property rights in recent years as the state Environmental Management Commission moved toward requiring buffer zones on the Catawba River.

It’s now exhorting its members to attend public hearings on state stormwater rules, which CSE charges would be stricter than the federal government requires.

“The environmental lobby and the EMC seem to have tremendous power, whether it’s highways or buffers,” said CSE state director Jonathan Hill.

Bill Holman, a longtime environmental lobbyist and former DENR secretary, said the environment is usually in the middle of a legislative tug-of-war.

Now executive director of the Clean Water fund, Holman said he doesn’t detect a backlash as much as a need to educate House members about the importance of environmental programs.

Last year, state law called for the fund to get $70 million a year. Statewide cutbacks reduced the appropriation to $66.5 million.

State law says the appropriation is supposed to rise to $100 million for each of the next two fiscal years. The House budget set it at $25 million. The Senate still must act.

The fund is reviewing about $100 million in grant requests, including projects to clean up Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek, protect the city’s water intake and buy shoreline on the South Fork Catawba River. Holman expects new requests totaling a similar amount later this year.

The state needs to spend $176 million more each year to reach its goal of conserving 1 million acres by 2010, says a new study by UNC Chapel Hill’s Environmental Finance Center.

“It’s hard times” in the state budget, Holman said. “But I think it also shows we have work to do in the House to make investments in clean water more important.”