Rough seas at the Coastal Resources Commission

February 20, 2013 

For advocates of stronger environmental protection rules in North Carolina, the prospect of Republican lawmakers changing the oversight of natural resources is an uneasy one. And that’s putting it mildly.

Some worry, for instance, that Republican plans to eliminate spots on the Coastal Resources Commission for environmentalists and fishing, forestry and agriculture interests will let the foxes guard the henhouse.

Or maybe not just guard it but to fire up the grill and get the dumplings ready.

The proposal has flown through the Senate and is likely to do the same in the House. This is the government of, by and for Republicans, and the GOP leaders in the legislature believe they have a mandate from the public to straighten things out, meaning eliminate all things with the stain of “done by Democrats” on them.

The proposed changes to the CRC, which was created in 1974 as part of the Coastal Area Management Act and is under the Division of Coastal Management, are whoppers. The commission approves rules on oceanfront development, rebuilding after storms, sandbagging and even the size of decks and piers and docks.

The guardians

With the state’s miles of fragile coastline, it’s important work, particularly with North Carolina’s vulnerability to storms. The federal government recognizes states that try to protect coastal areas, giving North Carolina $2.5 million through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration every year to help.

Currently, the CRC includes appointees – all by the governor – from commercial fishing, wildlife and sport fishing and agricultural interests, along with ecologists, coastal business people, a conservationist and three at-large members. There are 15 total.

But the proposed changes would eliminate the fishing, wildlife, ecological, agriculture and forestry representatives. Also gone would be the position dedicated to someone with a conservation background. The commission as Republicans see it would have 11 members, including five at-large members with one appointed by the governor and two each by the House and Senate. Developers would gain an additional spot.

This may pain environmentalists, who tend to align with Democrats, but with the huge majorities enjoyed by Republicans in the legislature, there’s very little that can be done to stop it. But Republicans, frankly, would do themselves a favor if they took a position once in a while contrary to fulfilling the worst fears of advocacy groups. Better still, they could be conservatives who conserve. They are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

Change agents

GOP legislators have interpreted their success in having super majorities in both houses and a Republican in the governor’s office as evidence that it’s time to reverse the policies made all those years under Democratic rule. And it’s easy to see why they’d believe that.

But beware a party, Republican or Democratic, that interprets a single election with a sharp philosophical slant. Yes, people wanted a change. Yes, they were weary of Democratic rule, and Democrats ran into some ethics issues and didn’t do themselves any favors in the way they governed without Republican input for decades. All true.

But on this issue, North Carolinians always have valued their precious natural resources and have recognized that those resources along the coast are finite. If regulation is to err, it must err on the side of caution, even if that means limits on potentially lucrative development.

It’s important that development interests be represented on panels such as the CRC. But Republicans seem determined to stack the deck, and that’s not good. This panel has worked over the years in a fairly amicable fashion, even when members strongly disagreed on certain issues. There’s no good reason to make these radical changes.

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