Cleveland County, in the North Carolina foothills, is a scenic place, with the charming city of Shelby at its heart. Next door, Rutherford County and its Mayberry-like town of Forest City are starting to draw retirees who appreciate small-town life.
But dont let the calm appearances and rolling hills deceive. Hard times are no stranger to the area, which once relied on now-shuttered textile mills to provide a livelihood for residents. And then theres the drought problem in the region, which forced mandatory water restrictions more than 10 years ago.
In that problem, though, there may be the birth of a political confrontation over environmental regulation that could turn into a major test for the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, which is viewed by developers as, shall we say, considerably more friendly than Democrats.
Basically, there are forces at work in Cleveland County that want a $95 million reservoir built there, and those forces have formed a water authority, Cleveland County Water, that serves about 57,000 customers in rural North Carolina and South Carolina.
The authority wants to dam the First Broad River, covering with water about 1,400 acres of forest and farms and covering 24 miles of stream, some wetlands and 10 homes. It is, the authority says, all necessary to ensure that Cleveland County will have adequate water for 100 years.
As it happens, such a project also would be of considerable benefit to real estate developers, whod doubtless draw some buyers to waterfront property.
Theres nothing inherently wrong with a little commerce connected to a water project, but heres the thing about the proposal: Some officials say that the dam isnt needed and that there are cheaper ways, much cheaper, for Cleveland County to get water. It could, for example, buy water from Forest City in Rutherford County; or Shelby, the Cleveland County seat; or Kings Mountain, a few miles away, also in Cleveland County. The Forest City deal would run about $50 million and the Shelby deal about $45 million.
This is part of the reason that the project doesnt have support from local officials or from the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville, which says this project is all about economic development. Opponents are hopeful: They dont think theres any way this project will get approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. Of course, the water authority then will sue the Corps.
There are some curious connections here that indeed cast doubt on the wisdom of the endeavor. Rep. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, a Republican, backs the project and, by the way, is an attorney for the water authority. Mike Hager, a Republican representative from Rutherfordton, went to Forest City council members and actually told them if they proceeded with plans to make an offer to sell water, a bill would be introduced to block it.
Hager also happens to be co-chairman of the state Environmental Review Commission. He has received financial support from John Cline Res. LLC, a real estate venture. And the manager of Cleveland County Water, Butch Smith, was appointed to the Environmental Management Commission by House Speaker Thom Tillis.
This all might be confusing, except when viewed through a political prism. People involved in leading the fight for this reservoir are politically connected (or actual office-holders), and they mean to take advantage of the Republican administrations attitude of easing up on environmental regulation.
So now the McCrory administration faces a defining moment of sorts: Will it reject a project that clearly doesnt measure up in terms of necessity and that likely will be rejected by federal officials or will it signal that its feeding time for those who want to push on with development projects with only a cursory, and not very concerned, look at environmental impact?
The environment should not be a partisan issue, period. With this project, Republicans have a chance to demonstrate that its not. Or that it very much is.