Environment, Legislature

Dust-up over riparian buffers stalls environmental bill in Senate finance

Sen. Jerry Tillman: Not sold on tax-free buffers (Photo: General Assembly)

House Bill 56, an omnibus environmental bill that had sailed through the full House, became a legislative Hindenburg today when a committee co-chair pulled the measure citing “too many unknowns.”

Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman and several of his GOP colleagues in the Senate Finance Committee were taken aback by language in the bill that would give property owners a tax break if they built riparian buffers on their land. That acreage would be removed from the county tax rolls.

“We need reports from counties,” Tillman told Sen. Andy Wells, who is responsible for the buffers section. “There are a lot of unknown factors involved.”

The fact that Republican lawmakers opposed a tax decrease indicated their level of discomfort with the financial hits their districts could sustain.

According to a fiscal note provided with the bill, Wake County estimated it could lose up to $7 million in property tax revenue on the 60,000 acres that could be declared riparian buffers. Gaston County, adjacent to Mecklenburg County, projected its 4,400 acres of potential riparian buffers would decrease its tax revenue by $1.2 million.

In all, 43 counties  in six river basins or watersheds could be lose money as a result of the change. Those areas are the Neuse, Catawba, and Tar-Pamlico River Basins; and the Jordan Lake, Randleman Lake, and Goose Creek Watershed.

Wells tried to persuade his colleagues to pass the bill by arguing first, that $7 million isn’t that much money to Wake County, which has a $1.2 billion budget. That reasoning swayed no one. Wells then reasoned that riparian buffers increase property values. Thus, any loss of tax revenue from the buffers would be offset by higher taxes on the rest of the acreage. Buffers are 50 feet wide and the length of the water feature on the property.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican, was unfazed by Wells’s argument.

“The Association of County Commissioners are not real happy with what they are about to lose,” Tucker said. “We don’t want to make a substantial tax impact on counties that can’t afford it.”

Most counties haven’t even provided their dollar estimates yet. However, the NC Department of Environmental Quality calculated that 19 percent of the land area in Rockingham County, for example, could qualify as buffer land — about 68,000 acres. That county is not rich: 18.4 percent of its population lives below the federal poverty line, according to census figures.

Hugh Johnson of the Association of County Commissioners told the committee that, “We see this as having a significant fiscal impact to counties.”

Wells did himself no favors in amending the bill to allow local law enforcement to clear a portion of buffers in watersheds and river basins if officials believe crime is occurring there. Original bill language limited the area to buffers only in the Jordan Lake watershed.

But how to pay city and county employees to clear the buffers requires tax dollars — a portion of which is jeopardized by Wells’s property tax proposal.

“I heard questions from other areas with riparian buffers,” Wells said, justifying the change to include all river basins and watersheds in the state.. “It’s a crime prevention tool.”

“Are there issues now that law enforcement has no authority to go in there?” Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, asked Wells.

“This clarifies the authority,” Wells replied, noting that he had heard of “activity going on around tributaries in my district.”

Throughout the life of the bill, Wells has been asked for crime data about riparian buffers. He has yet to provide it.

“If you don’t tax the buffer, there are no taxes to help support the law enforcement clearing the buffer,” said Tillman, who represents Randolph and Moore counties. “If Randolph County loses millions of dollars and  has to pay law enforcement to beef up patrol, they’re not going to be happy to raise the tax rate to recoup the loss.”

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