Reforming SEPA: Time to modernize burdensome rules

North Carolina’s regulatory environment has a direct effect on employers’ ability to create and retain jobs, and it is inseparable from the overall business climate competitiveness. This is not news to our state’s job creators, especially the small-business owners who account for half of the private-sector jobs in North Carolina.

In fact, at the North Carolina Chamber, we consistently hear from our members that federal and state regulations are costly and burdensome. Some even say they could not start their businesses today with the current level of regulation.

This frustration and uncertainty are underscored by the year-to-year responses in the N.C. Chamber’s annual CEO Poll, which showed that North Carolina job creators increasingly find the regulatory environment a hindrance to growth. With tens of thousands of regulations in our state, there is a consistent link between burdensome state regulations and negative economic effects.

We can all agree that regulations are important to promoting the health and safety of citizens and maintaining certain quality of life standards in our state and nation. Ultimately, we believe a healthy business climate and healthy environment cannot merely coexist but can thrive together. However, there need to be checks and balances on the regulatory system itself to ensure that unnecessary government-induced uncertainty is not stunting job and economic growth.

In North Carolina, state leaders recognized that red tape was strangling economic progress. Many steps have been taken to streamline the regulatory process by lifting unnecessary and costly regulations and to reduce waste and duplication in government – working toward the ultimate goal of a clean environment and economic growth.

We have the opportunity now to build on this momentum and make North Carolina more competitive.

North Carolina has statutes in place that have not been modernized in more than 40 years. The State Environmental Policy Act is one such statute. SEPA was enacted in the early 1970s, long before the advent of today’s thorough system of environmental permitting. The lengthy review process SEPA requires unnecessarily slows down business projects and inhibits job creation and capital investment.

One of the most glaring examples of red tape slowing economic growth is the N.C. 12 Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet. The replacement of the Bonner Bridge has been studied for more than 20 years with numerous environmental assessments, impact statements, supplemental environmental impact statements, studies and public meetings. Its structure is in dire straits. The N.C. Department of Transportation has had to close the bridge at times to make repairs just to make it safe enough to cross, leaving residents and tourists to rely on ferries. An alternative is urgently needed.

The state DOT and the Federal Highway Administration issued a Record of Decision to build a parallel bridge in 2010. A $215.8 million contract for the design and replacement was awarded in July 2011, and the bridge was scheduled to be completed this year. Today, we are no closer to a new bridge than when the contract was awarded. Anti-growth and environmental groups have stalled, delayed and obstructed construction by tying up the project in lawsuits. Halting construction significantly affects the Hatteras Island economy, which relies heavily on tourists’ ability to access the island.

House Bill 795 is a commonsense approach to modernizing an outdated SEPA law. We can deter frivolous lawsuits and expedite economic growth, all while maintaining strong environmental protections. Balanced environmental regulations are vital to promoting economic growth while safeguarding the health and safety of North Carolinians.

S. Lewis Ebert is president and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber.