Under the Dome

Bill on buffers, hog farms and other regulations advances in House

A House committee on Monday signed off on the latest in a series of regulatory reform bills from the Republican-led General Assembly. Bill sponsors said the 20-plus-page bill was aimed at protecting private property rights for developers and other businesses and eliminating unintended consequences of previous legislation, while not harming the environment. But environmental groups and others that spoke during the Regulatory Reform Committee meeting raised questions, particularly about provisions related to hog farms and “riparian buffers,” the strips of land adjacent to waterways that filter out pollutants before they reach the water.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the bill will go to the House floor for a vote Monday night or later this week. The legislation would still have to pass the Senate. A major section of House Bill 760 would clarify that local governments cannot enforce ordinances that require buffers of wider than 50 feet after June 1, 2016, unless the Environmental Management Commission grants a request based on scientific evidence that a wider buffer would help the environment.

Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, a bill sponsor, said some local governments require wider buffers than the state minimum requirement of 50 feet, hurting developers. “The local governments only have the authority by current law to implement 50 feet and no greater,” he said. “We are giving them the avenue to do greater than 50 feet as long as they can prove it to the EMC based on science, so this should be a pro-environment measure, and not something that’s diminishing the environment,” Millis said.

But Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse riverkeeper, said the buffers keep pollution – such as sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus – out of waterways. “When buffers are cut or developed, this pollution load flows into our streams, creeks, estuaries,” he said.

Starr said the bill would limit the flexibility of local governments to protect waters before they become “chronically impaired,” which is more expensive to remedy.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, raised concerns about provisions in the bill to allow certain hog farms that were abandoned or unused in recent years to reopen without complying with new rules for treatment of hog waste stemming from major pollution issues cause by hog waste.

“It looks like this language is going to permit farms that don’t currently comply to be able to expand, and it might significantly expand the hog population in our state,” Harrison said. “I’m very troubled by it, and I wish that we would study it before we consider opening this up.”

Angela Whitener Maier, a lobbyist for the N.C. Pork Council, said the provision would help roughly 20 small hog farmers that want to reopen farms that closed because of the economic downturn, but because of existing laws cannot. “It will not result in new (waste) lagoons, brand new farms or a massive explosion of new hogs on the market,” she said.

The regulatory reform bill, among other provisions, would:

▪ Amend the law governing occupational licensing boards to prohibit a board from employing a person licensed by the board to serve as an inspector or investigator, if the person is practicing in that profession.

▪ Create a task force to address problems related to the administration of grants and contracts from the state to private nonprofits that serve residents of the state.

▪ Prohibit marine fisheries and wildlife investigators from inspecting weapons, equipment, fish or wildlife unless the person is present when the officer is doing the inspection. Millis said he is still working on that provision.