The Pulse

Senate committee beats up on stream buffers and plastic bag ban

By: - May 26, 2017 3:30 pm
An example of a stream buffer, designed to protect waterways and environmentally sensitive areas. Not pictured: Crime.

Stream buffers: Dens of iniquity, sanctums of misdeeds, loci of vice.

Members of the Senate Agriculture/ Environment Committee this week on buffers and the plastic bag ban, while trying to sneak a coastal development provision through the gatekeepers.

The committee discussed HB 56, Amend Environmental Laws, a potpourri of legislation that survived crossover.

Sen. Andy Wells, a Hickory Republican and real estate agent, repeated the evidence-free assertion that buffers, strips of bushes and trees, harbor not only wildlife, but also criminals.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, wanted to know more. “Do you have any data from law enforcement on crimes committed in buffers in the Jordan Lake watershed?” he asked Wells.

“I don’t have any,” Wells replied.

OK, so maybe there’s not that much crime in the buffers. But, Wells said, forcing property owners to add 50 feet of green space to protect environmentally sensitive areas is tantamount to a partial taking. In this case, property owners should receive a tax break if they are required to build them.

“Senator Wells, how is maintaining a buffer an imposition, when in many case they add value to a property? I would suggest there’s a benefit to the owner. Why exclude them from the tax rolls?” Woodard said. “Help me understand.”

“You’re giving up 50 feet of your land; 30 feet of it you can’t even prune,” Wells replied. “They block visibility of the water feature you’re trying to see.”

It should be noted that Wells is a managing parter with the Prism real estate firm, which has several projects near waterways. For example, Prism is selling 96 acres off Sand Pit Road near Hickory. The company’s website advertises the recreational/residential land as having a “quarter-mile bordering the Jacobs For River and six-tenths of a mile of creek frontage.”

Prism is selling another 46 acres with the amenity of 800 feet of creek.

Giving property owners a tax break, Wells said, “encourages people to build buffers.”

But what about the crime?

On to the plastic bag ban, which has been in effect for coastal counties since 2010. The primary purpose of the ban is to keep sea turtles and other marine life from becoming entangled in the bags and dying.

“The ban makes it more expensive to do business on coast,” Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican from the coast, said, citing no data. “There are more bags on the beach than there were before.”

Again, Cook had no hard numbers, only hearsay. And if there are more bags littering the beach, it’s possible they’re being imported and discarded by ne’er-do-wells from other counties and states.

If you are for small government, you should not repeal this ban,” Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, urged the committee. “Locals love this.”

While HB 56 would allow bags to roll across the Outer Banks, it also would permit vast swaths of pavement to be built on environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

The bill language was cut and pasted from SB 434 to address concerns of residents of a Wilmington-area subdivision. The original developer had not complied with coastal stormwater management rules; these govern, in part, the amounts of allowable impervious surface.

Too much pavement can harm water quality because runoff containing yard fertilizer, motor oil and other chemicals, flows into streams, sounds, shellfish habitats and the like. Pavement also increases the risk of flooding.

But lo and behold, the residents found their properties violated stormwater rules. The bill would give these property owners — and potentially thousands of others up and down the coast — a variance.

“This is to help these neighbors,” Cook said, “and protect people from unscrupulous developers.”

If only the bill’s scope were that narrow. Instead, it would apply to 175 other coastal subdivisions, said Tracy Davis, director of DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources. He encouraged the committee to reconsider the provision. DEQ is working with the Wilmington property owners, including by extending deadlines, to help them comply with the permit.

The bill’s next step is the Finance Committee.



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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.