Raleigh, N.C. — A bill making its way through the General Assembly in the closing hours of the legislative session would make it easier for developers to pave or build on small wetland areas.
Senators voted 27-15 to send the measure to the House Thursday night.
The measure in question had been part of a "farm bill" that worked its way through the legislature earlier this year. The provision had been stricken in that earlier bill because, according to some reports, it had not been pushed by agriculture interests.
Under the bill, developers would have to pay to replace far fewer wetland areas than is currently the case.
Environmental lobbyists said they had been under the impression that Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, would no longer pursue the measure. But during an 8:15 p.m. committee meeting, Jackson stripped another wetlands measure out of House Bill 938 and replaced it with language that would allow developers to build on so-called "isolated wetlands" without a permit unless required to do by federal law.
Federal law doesn't require developers to get a wetlands permit unless a government agency or outside group can prove the wetland in question is connected to the "waters of the United States." That's an expensive and time-consuming process.
"This may be the biggest thing they've done all session," said Mary Asbill with the Southern Environmental Law Center., decrying the move.
There was little debate about the bill during the committee. But as Jackson left the meeting, he met Asbill and other environmental lobbyists who tried to convince him that the provision was a problem.
"It's killing us in the east," Jackson replied. Lawmakers backing the bill say it is impeding economic development.
Under current law, wetlands of less than one-third of an acre located east of Interstate 95 do not have a permit, which means that builders don't have replace them in order to build upon them. That threshold is one-tenth of an acre west of I-95. For wetlands that meet those thresholds, developers must either build replacements or buy credits from others that have created wetlands elsewhere.
Asbill said small wetlands play an important role in controlling flooding and cleaning water.
"If you remove them, they're not there to filter water that's heading somewhere like Jordan Lake," Asbill said, referencing a local water reservoir that has struggled with pollution issues.
During floor debate, Jackson called it "a common-sense bill."
Asked by Democrats if the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources supported the measure, Jackson said, "DENR is not in favor of this bill."
He added,"We have spoken with DENR several times but not had any language from them that would get at what we're seeking."
It's unclear what, if any, action the House might take before they finish work for the year Friday morning.