Carteret County Crossroads

NEWSLETTER # 86, SEPTEMBER 2000
PO BOX 155, BEAUFORT, NC 28516. 252-726-6663
www.carteretcrossroads.org

The following is an article by our President who has been working on several citizen committees involved with water quality issues.

THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN CAMA, THE COASTAL RESOURCES COMMISSION (CRC), LOCAL GOVERNMENTS AND THE PROTECTION OF NORTH CAROLINAÕS COASTAL WATERS

Richard H. Bierly, President
Carteret County Crossroads

The Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) requires coastal counties to periodically prepare land use plans to protect the health of our coastal environment while guiding economic development. Land use plans could and should be an integral and sensible part of North Carolina environmental law. A key responsibility of the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) is to assist local governments in understanding the requirements for these plans and to approve them when submitted. The Division of Coastal Management (DCM) awards grants to local governments to offset the expense of this planning effort. The beauty of the concept is that it allows local governments to set their local priorities, identify local problems and challenges and to take steps to cope with them as they guide economic growth in their jurisdictions.

And yet, by any objective measure, water quality in the coastal waters is declining. Shellfish waters, "our canary in the mine", continue to experience closings, permanent and temporary. Fish kills persist. Important sea grass beds continue to shrink. The root causes of these problems vary by region but are pretty well understood. Studies of tidal waters strongly connect the decline of water quality to increased human development. The increase in impervious surfaces and density of development in river basins are directly linked to declining water quality. These are precisely the issues for which the concept of local land use planning was designed.

The CRC, influenced to some degree by expressions of concern by environmental groups, declared a moratorium on Land Use Planning in September of 1998. It formed a task force early in 1999 to revise the rules and to improve the process. This task force recently completed its work and is presenting it to the CRC. No matter what recommendations it comes up with, the CRC will face serious challenges to implement them if these recommendations are seen as more intrusion into local control of land use.

So what is the problem? What was intended to be a cooperative effort between local governments and state officials has turned into a bureaucratic, complex, superficial and consultant-driven process. Where 20 plans were envisioned, over 90 exist. An extensive bureaucracy has emerged that perpetuates the process without taking any responsibility for the degradation of coastal waters. Elected and appointed officials have learned to make their plans as innocuous as possible and the CRC supports that trend by its interpretation of the regulations. Often, plans simply echo state regulations on matters like storm water runoff control despite localized problems needing attention. Regulations require quality public participation but it is superficial at best. When members of the public wonder out loud at CRC meetings why these plans are approved when they are so meaningless, they are told the CRC has no authority to require action and that they should contact their elected representatives!

This debate appears to be about power and politics, not about science. It is about freedom at the local level. CAMA/DCM are obstacles to overcome. Local officials argue they are protecting "private property rights" and fail to protect "public trust waters", as they see the former being their responsibility and the latter, DCMÕs. A careful reading of CAMA does not support that interpretation.

Quite appropriately, economic growth and development are paramount to local officials. But they run the risk of "Killing the Golden Goose ", unless they guide that development so that it does not ruin the environment that is so important to the coastal way of life. Local officials, frequently arguing that a business case hasnÕt been done, reject out of hand proposed CRC action. They should be willing to do serious cumulative and secondary impact analysis of decisions they make regarding the future of their jurisdictions. That can begin with a good land use plan.

Well, how is it these plans get "approved"? First of all, the review process is a cursory one, which focuses on administrative requirements. Some members of the Coastal Resource Advisory Council (CRAC) who participate in the review process and the CRC appear to approve plans they know will not fix any problem because they are not in a position to point out specific reason for rejection, a legal requirement. So they say OK! Others just donÕt want to make waves, providing the DCM staff says the plan in question complies with the rules. There is little, if any, discussion of action taken to correct problems identified in earlier plans. The CRC justifies their cursory examination by pointing out they can not require implementation of action plans.

Commission members should read their own rules. These rules clearly require a lot more than is currently being done to involve the community in the planning process. The rules also call for plans of substance, not boilerplate. Why the CRC is so reluctant to make use of this valuable tool speaks volumes as to the level of commitment to real coastal protection that now exists in our state. But in all fairness, the CRC canÕt do it alone. If the DCM staff continues to treat this effort as an administrative drill, matters of substance will never be discussed.

Many local officials freely disparage the land use planning process as a paper drill into which they put as little effort as possible. It appears they feel the state government should not interfere with local responsibility, and yet, many seem not to want to create and implement provisions to protect their environment. Not if they seem to "complicate or inhibit" economic growth! But isnÕt that the idea in the first place, finding a way to "protect the coast and grow sensibly"?

Three important action steps are needed. First, the public needs to become better informed and more involved. They should find a way to let their elected officials know they expect them to look long term at the challenges facing their communities and take steps to protect the coastal environment. Second, local officials should pay more attention to the work of CRC/DCM. They should attend the CRC regular meetings, appoint and properly charge citizens to Coastal Resource Advisory Council membership, and expect regular briefings on actions and events. Third, local officials need to be educated on the basic science of environmental issues. They need to understand cause and effect at the regional and local level so they can propose sensible and relevant safeguards for their communities. These by invitation only sessions could be developed and conducted by DCM staff.

The goals of CAMA can not be met by minor alterations of the rules for land use planning. The CRC needs to "raise the bar" and make it clear it expects the local governments to do better. If not, then the money dedicated to land use planning should be redirected to other environmental initiatives.

CROSSROADS NEWS

The new labeling system that more clearly indicates the status of your membership apparently worked OK in the last issue. We will continue to show on the first line of your label your membership status. As a special inducement to become current in your dues, we will give credit for 2001 dues to dues payments received after October 1, 2000.

Members are welcome at all Board Meetings, held the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 PM in the Conference Room at the Duke Marine Lab Auditorium.

We welcome our newest Board member, Lynn Barker. She replaces Allyn Powell, who found it necessary to resign because of the press of other duties. George Kunkle has also resigned form the Board. We want to thank both George and Allyn for their work with the Board over a number of years. We hope that they will again be able to serve as Board members in the future. If you know of persons interested in serving on the Board, please let us know.

Thank you to our newest Life Member, Pat Tester for her continued support of Crossroads.