Raleigh, N.C. — Legislative leaders talked often this session about the importance of protecting the state's military bases. But their final budget appears to have omitted matching funds for a $9.2 million federal grant for that purpose.
The state won the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration, or REPI, grant from the U.S. Department of Defense earlier this year, beating out other states competing for the money. The REPI program is aimed at protecting military bases from encroaching development through buffers.
Under the DOD's new "Sentinel Landscapes" initiative, the federal grant money would be used in 33 counties in eastern North Carolina to preserve farmland and wilderness around military bases and the Dare County bombing range, as well as along low-level flight training paths.
With a dollar-for-dollar match, the state could secure up to $20 million in funds over the next five years – $9.2 million from REPI and the rest from related federal agencies and programs. The grant would be managed by the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
"These are shovel-ready projects that have already been identified by the military as the projects that they would like to move forward," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said Thursday. "A lot of the projects were actually for protecting low-level flight paths for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and also for protecting the Dare bombing range, which is vital for their training."
Other projects, Troxler said, would have protected the bases themselves with easements, which are contracts with farmers and landowners who agree not to develop their land in exchange for annual payments.
"It’s not a lot of money for a farm, but if you’re going to be farming, it does add a stream of income to the farming operation that’s stable," he explained. "So, it’s a good deal both ways."
Troxler asked legislative budget-writers for $20 million in matching funds over the next two years, but the final budget didn't include them.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown sent a letter to the grant program in February, pledging their "unwavering support" of the state's application.
Asked why the REPI matching funds were not included in the budget, Brown, R-Onslow, replied that he believed that no funds had been requested. Brown also said Troxler could use allocations to various state trust funds to meet the required match, but money in those funds is awarded through competitive grant processes, and some grant applications are already pending.
"A funding stream is available in the budget that appears consistent with what was in DOD’s fact sheet," Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said.
Troxler said that's not the case.
"There was an agreed-upon cap on how much money they would spend in this budget, and as the add-ons kept adding on and adding on, this got moved to a lower priority," he said, adding that Hurricane Matthew relief had taken "a big chunk of change."
"We did receive $20 million to work with especially drainage issues and repairing ponds and farm roads and that kind of stuff, so I understood it," he said. "But at the same time, I know the importance of these funds to the military in North Carolina and to protecting farmland around these bases. So, it is a top, top priority for me."
Brown has made protecting North Carolina's military bases a top priority, using that rationale last month to push through a moratorium on new wind farms in the state.
He argued that two wind farms in development would be incompatible with the military, despite a report from the military expressing the contrary, and he claimed they could disadvantage the state's bases in the next round of realignment and closures.
"If those bases were to leave either Goldsboro or Cherry Point, I can't tell you what it would do to those economies," Brown said during a Senate committee debate. "To not protect that resource, I think, would be a huge mistake."
Troxler said he plans to try for REPI money again in the short legislative session in 2018. If the matching funds are made available next year, the state can still draw down the federal funds, provided it can get projects underway quickly. If not, the DOD could offer the grant to another state.
Getting the program off the ground could also help the state if the DOD embarks on another round of base closures, he said.
"I think it is important that we do these projects with the military and demonstrate that the state of North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in the nation, if it does come down to another BRAC [base closure] process," he said.
The state Sierra Club, a key supporter of the REPI grant, chided legislative leaders for the apparent omission.
"It appears that the legislature left millions in federal dollars on the table and missed a key opportunity to protect North Carolina’s military bases from encroachment by purchasing conservation lands," Sierra Club spokeswoman Margaret Lillard said in a statement. "Instead, the Legislature imposed an 18-month ban on wind energy at the insistence of Appropriations Co-Chair Harry Brown. This moratorium does nothing to help the military and instead undermines rural economic development in two Tier 1 counties."