State Politics

NC Senate bill aims at bike lanes and stream buffers

The Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to regulatory changes that would free landowners in parts of Eastern North Carolina to scrape away shoreline vegetative buffers that reduce pollution in rivers and sounds.

House Bill 44, approved in a 32-15 vote on its second reading, also included provisions that would make it harder for cities to add bike lanes on some roads – and make it easier for coastal towns to get rid of beachfront houses that have been ruined by ocean storms.

The legislation would eliminate the state ban on removing vegetation to allow development on land within 50 feet of streams and rivers on most private property in the Tar-Pamlico and lower Neuse river basins. And around the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, in areas where they were not eliminated, these buffers would be redefined to include coastal wetlands and tidal marshes that are frequently under water – freeing additional dry land for development.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat, argued that the vegetative buffers reduce stream pollution by filtering out sediment and other runoff that would degrade water quality.

“These are precisely the rivers in which there were massive fish kills in the early 2000s, which helped us focus on water quality in the sounds,” Stein said during floor debate. “I don’t thnk any of us have an interest in having our drinking water more polluted.”

Stein warned that if the buffers are cleared away and water quality suffers, environmental regulators might compensate by making farmers, businesses and local governments take more expensive measures to reduce stream pollution. Stein noted that the bill also calls for a study of riparian buffers by the state Environmental Management Commission, and he said the legislature should postpone any action until the study is finished in 2016.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican sponsoring the legislation, said she would discuss the issue with Stein and consider making changes before the bill receives its final Senate vote next week. Because the Senate added a long list of rule changes to an unrelated House bill, the legislation would have to return to the House for final approval before it could become law.

The town of Nags Head might draw legal support from another item in Wade’s bill, which would empower towns to remove uninhabitable houses from the state’s open beaches. The town was stymied last year in its effort to get rid of derelict shorefront houses that had been undermined by ocean storms, because a judge ruled that only the state government has authority to take the action.

Raleigh, Durham and other cities would be affected by a provision that would give the state Board of Transportation veto power over some bike lane projects on state roads inside city limits. If the project involved reducing the number of automobile lanes in order to add bicycle lanes, it would require approval by a majority vote of the state board.

“These are roads that have been put in by state money, by taxpayers,” Wade said. “And I think they should be reviewed by the Board of Transportation before we make those changes.”

The Board of Transportation’s “Complete Streets” policy encourages the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes to North Carolina streets and roads. DOT engineers worked with Raleigh to add bike lanes and reduce car lanes on Avent Ferry Road a few years ago, and with Durham to do the same on a section of West Main Street.

‘Not rubber stamps’

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham County Democrat, said there is no need for the board to review bike projects that have been scrutinized thoroughly by DOT engineers.

“These are not rubber stamps,” Woodard said on the Senate floor. “Many of them are turned down.”

Ed Harrison, a Chapel Hill Town Council member who advocates for bicycle and pedestrian improvements as a board member with BikeWalk NC, a nonprofit group, said Wade’s bill was a “legislative overreach” that would create obstacles for bike projects.

Durham and DOT are considering a “road diet” redesign for U.S. 15-501 Business. It would be slimmed down from five motor-vehicle lanes to three, with bike lanes added on both sides.

Joey Hopkins, who oversees DOT operations in seven counties including Durham and Wake, said engineers endorsed the changes after a study showed that the reduced automobile lanes would be sufficient to handle traffic.

“From a traffic-flow standpoint and from a growth-in-traffic standpoint, the department thinks it will work for a really long time,” Hopkins said.