Environmental rule reform gets reboot in House

Posted June 18, 2014

A variety of amphibians use isolated wetlands as habitats for their young.

— Despite a contentious vote over wetland protections, a House committee on Wednesday approved a suite of environmental rule changes that will compete with a more controversial Senate version.

The bill, listed as Senate Bill 38, would among other things prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer, exempt some old animal waste lagoons from environmental rules and roll back some required air quality reporting. Environmental groups say the House measure is a big improvement over the Senate version, which passed that chamber in late May.

"We're appreciative of what's not in it," Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said. "Some of the Senate provisions we were particularly concerned with."

Among those Senate provisions was a measure that would remove protections for so-called isolated wetlands, tiny plots of land disconnected from other waterways. Environmentalists say the habitats serve a vital function for wildlife and pollution control, especially farther from the coast, where other types of wetlands are more rare.

But developers argue rules on isolated wetlands are often arbitrarily applied by state regulators and cost too much, given the habitats' limited environmental value.

Under current regulations, developers west of Interstate 95 are allowed to essentially bulldoze up to one-tenth of an acre of these isolated wetlands on each project. To the east, where wetlands are more plentiful, the limit is one-third of an acre.

The House version also removes some of those protections, raising the threshold to one-third of an acre west of I-95 and one acre to the east. It doesn't go quite as far as the Senate version, which makes the threshold one acre across the state.

That difference caused more contention than any other provision in the 25-page bill after Rep. Chris Millis, R-Onslow, attempted to amend the measure to more closely match the Senate's one-acre threshold.

"We want to make sure that we protect what needs to be protected from an environmental standpoint, and those things that are not significant to be given the actual private property rights due to our citizens," Millis said.

But bill sponsor Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, said there's a reason why there's a distinction between the eastern and western parts of the state. 

"The dirt east of 95 is different than the dirt west of 95, so the nature of a wetland east of 95 is different than the nature of a wetland west of 95," Samuelson said. "Once you apply the criteria [Millis] has on there, you wouldn't find an isolated wetland west of 95 that's that big."

The amendment split the committee 10-10 and failed to pass.

Lisa Martin, chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Home Builders Association, said the discussion around the amendment some of its more important details, like adopting rules to specify what qualifies as an isolated wetland and how builders could be required to mitigate. She said Millis' measure would have gone a long way to prevent the potential for abuse from arbitrary wetlands designations by regulators.

"As far as the acreage, that was not our issue," Martin said. "We're more concerned about defining what it is." 

But Millis did get broad support for another amendment to strike substantial changes to the makeup and duties of the Marine Fisheries Commission. The measure passed after many agreed that the issue needed more study.

Although some Democrats expressed concerns about the regulatory reform bill as a whole, it heads to the House floor with broad support from the committee.

"I think this is a compromise," Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said. "I can't say every provision I'm wildly excited about, but I think on the whole we've done a good job."


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