Smithfield Herald

County might administer buffer rules

Johnston County is streamlining the approval process for construction that affects riparian buffers. The aim is to ease the regulatory wait for developers.

Riparian buffers are strips of land with vegetation near a stream or river. The vegetation keeps erosion from entering and polluting the waterway.

Currently, when a developer wants to do a construction project that could affect a riparian buffer, he must contact the N.C. Division of Water Resources. The state office decides whether to approve the project and what restrictions to place on it.

But recently, this process has taken longer and longer, said Jamie Guerrero, the county’s storm-water administrator. “You used to be able to get (approval) within a week,” he said.

But recently, Guerrero said, the process has taken up to 30 days. “And in some cases it was longer,” he said.

Developers approached the county to see if it could bring the approval process to the local level.

In June, County Commissioners gave their preliminary approval to the change. They gave their final OK this month.

“We can probably provide better customer service and be more efficient during the review process by having our own buffer ordinance instead of relying on the state to enforce it,” Guerrero said. “Sort of a one-stop shop for developers. They can have their plans in, and we can review them for water, sewer, storm water and now erosion.”

Guerrero attributed the longer wait times at the state level to budget cuts and the loss of staff members; the office no longer has enough people to quickly respond, he said.

The state’s Environmental Management Commission still has to sign off on Johnston’s ordinances. Assuming it does so in January, the new rules will go into effect then.

Jerry Dalton, owner of Dalton Engineering and Associates in Clayton, said going to the county for approval will save time. He also looks forward to building a closer working relationship with county inspectors, who will have better hands-on knowledge of the land.

“The process of having to go to the state, it’s been pretty lengthy at times,” Dalton said. “They seem to be sort of overloaded at times and not be able to respond as quickly as our clients would like them to respond.”

Plus, “the better you know the people, the closer they are to you; it would just seem to be an advantage,” he said. “We can build up a better working relationship with the local authority than we can with the state.”

The county’s ordinance will apply only to land in rural Johnston. But the Town of Clayton is looking at asking the county to sign off on construction projects in its jurisdiction.

“We sort of saw this as a bonus for us,” said Stacy Beard, Clayton’s public information officer. “We know who the county folks are, they know the area, and we already have a relationship with them. ... We just know that this stuff has to be done, and if it’s going to be done by our county folks who are right down the road in Smithfield, all the better.”

The county will also be responsible for investigating complaints of riparian buffer violations, which could add better oversight, Beard said. “If we get complaints, it’s our Johnston County folks who will be going out to look at that, rather than a state agency who is perhaps overseeing six or seven other counties.”

Matthew Starr and his group, the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, have reviewed the county’s proposed rules and found them to be environmentally sound. As long as county insepctors are as well trained as their state counterparts, the change is fine with the foundation, he said.

Starr said buffers are vital in keeping sediment and nutritients such as nitrogen out of waterways. “Buffers are one of the single-handed greatest tools that we have in the protection of water quality,” he said.