Republican legislators plan to take over key state commissions would remake the Coastal Resources Commission in a way that could strain a decades-long partnership with federal regulators.
At stake is $2.5 million in federal funds the state receives each year to help protect the environment in a federal-state partnership that has afforded North Carolina local control of coastal development permits.
A bill working through the General Assembly would change the balance of interests on the commission by reducing the number of members required to have expertise in the scientific areas that the commission deals with. It would increase the number of at-large and, potentially, the number of business appointments.
Senate Bill 10 also lifts the prohibition on commissioners making a significant amount of their income from development, real estate or lobbying.
The bill would also remove the requirement that all but two commissioners live at the coast. In fact, the bill doesnt require commissioners even to live in North Carolina.
This is going to let the foxes guard the henhouse, Environment North Carolina executive director Elizabeth Ouzts said of the absence of a conflict-of-interest provision in the bill. Its a major change and one that is deeply troubling.
Republicans in the Senate say the revamp of the coastal agency is simply a result of the elections that gave them control of the General Assembly and put a GOP governor in office. They say SB10 carries out the voters mandate by putting Republicans in control of several key commissions that set the rules and regulations for utility rates, injured employees and environmental protections.
Many Republicans campaigned on the complaint that the current, Democratic-appointed commissions have been obstacles to economic growth.
Senate Leader Phil Bergers office disagreed that the bill constitutes a significant change to the commission.
All it does is replace board members with new board members, spokeswoman Amy Auth said Friday. It does not change the commissions mission and purpose.
She added that commissioners who might make money from development would still be subject to the State Ethics Act as well as state laws against bribery and self-dealing. She said it would not be the only commission that doesnt have a residency requirement, and that the governor and lawmakers could ensure that the coast is well-represented by appointees.
Fishing, conservation slots gone
The Coastal Resources Commission has been around since 1974. It approves the rules on such issues as oceanfront construction, post-storm redevelopment, the installation of sandbags, the size of a deck and whether piers, docks and bridges can be built.
Its reach covers 20 counties; 92 local governments have land-use plans signed off on by the commission.
The bill would reduce the commission from 15 to 11 members and eliminate slots that are set aside to represent commercial and sports fishing, marine ecology, coastal agriculture, forestry and conservation interests.
The governor, who appoints all members, would have seven appointments and the General Assembly four at-large appointments. The governors selections would include two members who have experience in coastal land development or are coastal property owners, one who is involved in a coastal-related business, two with marine engineering experience, one local government representative and one at-large.
The N.C. Coastal Federation is another organization that has concerns about the makeup of the board. For one, theres more than the 320 miles of oceanfront at stake: There are more than 2 million acres of sounds, creeks and marshes affected by development.
Is this commission really going to be representative of the entire coast or just the beach communities and development interests? asked Todd Miller, the groups executive director.
$2.5 million rides on changes
Federal law authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office to take a role in protecting, restoring and developing coastal communities. It does so through a voluntary program with the states, which are allowed to develop their own management structures and policies.
In return, North Carolina receives about $2.5 million annually to further those goals. The state has been in the program since 1978. Any change to the way a state operates the program has to be reviewed by NOAA, according to the federal agency and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
NOAA would then decide if it considers the changes minor or substantial enough to require additional information, such as through a formal environmental impact report.
The Coastal Resources Commission is the hub of the program for assuring balanced approach, Miller said. It sets the policy for coastal development.
Miller said another concern is that if the bill passes, all current commissioners will have to be replaced immediately, and that could slow down the entire permit process.
It puts a huge burden on the governor and legislature to make a whole slew of rapid appointments, Miller said.
Bill sped through Senate
SB10 began as a more wide-ranging bill to cement the new governors and legislatures control over state government, but has been whittled down a bit. Democrats still call it a power grab.
The bill came straight from the Senate majority leadership and sped through that chamber in three days. It passed on a 35-14 vote, with two Democrats freshman Sen. Ben Clark of Cumberland and Hoke counties and veteran Sen. Clark Jenkins of Tarboro voting with the Republicans, and was sent to the House.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said last week that the proposal might be split into two bills, separating the commissions-makeover provision from a section that would eliminate 12 special superior court judges. But Tillis said he thought the bill would eventually pass the House similar to the original legislation.
Tillis sent the bill to the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development and then to the Rules Committee. Commerce committee chairman Rep. Tom Murry said his committees staff is gathering information about the bills impact and considering possible changes. No date has been set to take it up.