Wake County

Morrisville mayor, experts oppose plan to reduce stream buffers

Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman walked the banks of the Neuse River on Tuesday to show how close to water sources developers could build under proposed legislation.

State law preserves vegetation within 50 feet of a waterway. The latest edition of state House Bill 44 would reduce that buffer to 30 feet and allow clear-cutting to the water’s edge as long as certain types of vegetation are replanted.

“Imagine (development) this close to the water,” Stohlman said, gesturing toward the river.

The bill “would allow more pollution into our already-compromised drinking water,” he said.

Morrisville gets its drinking water from Jordan Lake. But Stohlman led a group of environmental experts and activists in North Raleigh in denouncing the proposal, saying it has the potential to reduce water quality across the state.

The bill is one of several proposals – including House bills 760 and 765 – that would bring drastic change to North Carolina’s environmental regulations, members of the group said.

But House Bill 44 is the cornerstone of “the largest attack on water quality protections that we have seen in decades,” according to Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director for the local Sierra Club.

Representatives from WakeUp Wake County and the Neuse River Foundation joined Stohlman, Chicurel-Bayard and Ken Reckhow, professor emeritus of water resources at Duke University, in calling on state lawmakers to study the buffer issue before passing new rules.

Bill sponsors should produce scientific evidence that the 30-foot buffer would protect the water quality as effectively as the 50-foot buffer, Reckhow said.

The buffer is important because the tree roots provide an opportunity to remove nitrogen and other pollutants, he said.

The bill’s future is unclear. The Senate passed it on June 15, and the bill is now in a special committee.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, has been working on a solution to the bill.

McGrady said he wants to alter the language to prevent clear-cutting or mowing to the water’s edge.

“That reduces the effectiveness of the buffer,” McGrady wrote in an email. “I’m aware of the concerns, and am working with my colleagues to resolve concerns regarding riparian buffers language in H 44, H 765 or H 760, and the budget.”

The buffer requirements were formed years ago after water pollution killed thousands of Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river fish in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The group that met Tuesday accused the bill’s authors of trying to please developers at the expense of municipalities that would have to spend more money to treat more pollution.

“Pollution that is not removed naturally by these buffers will have to be removed manually by towns and cities downstream, costing taxpayers thousands of extra dollars,” Stohlman said.

The legislation is thought to help developers. But the current buffers “certainly haven’t affected development in Cary and Morrisville,” Stohlman added.

Building homes closer to water also puts them more at risk for flash-flooding damage, said Matt Starr, the upper Neuse riverkeeper for the Neuse River Foundation, adding that the buffers pay for themselves.

“The benefits far outweigh their cost,” Starr said.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht