Environment

Senate committee beats up on stream buffers and plastic bag ban

An example of a stream buffer, designed to protect waterways and environmentally sensitive areas. Not pictured: Crime.

Stream buffers: Dens of iniquity, sanctums of misdeeds, loci of vice.

Members of the Senate Agriculture/ Environment Committee this week on buffers and the plastic bag ban, while trying to sneak a coastal development provision through the gatekeepers.

The committee discussed HB 56, Amend Environmental Laws, a potpourri of legislation that survived crossover.

Sen. Andy Wells, a Hickory Republican and real estate agent, repeated the evidence-free assertion that buffers, strips of bushes and trees, harbor not only wildlife, but also criminals.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, wanted to know more. “Do you have any data from law enforcement on crimes committed in buffers in the Jordan Lake watershed?” he asked Wells.

“I don’t have any,” Wells replied.

OK, so maybe there’s not that much crime in the buffers. But, Wells said, forcing property owners to add 50 feet of green space to protect environmentally sensitive areas is tantamount to a partial taking. In this case, property owners should receive a tax break if they are required to build them.

“Senator Wells, how is maintaining a buffer an imposition, when in many case they add value to a property? I would suggest there’s a benefit to the owner. Why exclude them from the tax rolls?” Woodard said. “Help me understand.”

“You’re giving up 50 feet of your land; 30 feet of it you can’t even prune,” Wells replied. “They block visibility of the water feature you’re trying to see.”

It should be noted that Wells is a managing parter with the Prism real estate firm, which has several projects near waterways. For example, Prism is selling 96 acres off Sand Pit Road near Hickory. The company’s website advertises the recreational/residential land as having a “quarter-mile bordering the Jacobs For River and six-tenths of a mile of creek frontage.”

Prism is selling another 46 acres with the amenity of 800 feet of creek.

Giving property owners a tax break, Wells said, “encourages people to build buffers.”

But what about the crime?

On to the plastic bag ban, which has been in effect for coastal counties since 2010. The primary purpose of the ban is to keep sea turtles and other marine life from becoming entangled in the bags and dying.

“The ban makes it more expensive to do business on coast,” Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican from the coast, said, citing no data. “There are more bags on the beach than there were before.”

Again, Cook had no hard numbers, only hearsay. And if there are more bags littering the beach, it’s possible they’re being imported and discarded by ne’er-do-wells from other counties and states.

If you are for small government, you should not repeal this ban,” Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, urged the committee. “Locals love this.”

While HB 56 would allow bags to roll across the Outer Banks, it also would permit vast swaths of pavement to be built on environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

The bill language was cut and pasted from SB 434 to address concerns of residents of a Wilmington-area subdivision. The original developer had not complied with coastal stormwater management rules; these govern, in part, the amounts of allowable impervious surface.

Too much pavement can harm water quality because runoff containing yard fertilizer, motor oil and other chemicals, flows into streams, sounds, shellfish habitats and the like. Pavement also increases the risk of flooding.

But lo and behold, the residents found their properties violated stormwater rules. The bill would give these property owners — and potentially thousands of others up and down the coast — a variance.

“This is to help these neighbors,” Cook said, “and protect people from unscrupulous developers.”

If only the bill’s scope were that narrow. Instead, it would apply to 175 other coastal subdivisions, said Tracy Davis, director of DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources. He encouraged the committee to reconsider the provision. DEQ is working with the Wilmington property owners, including by extending deadlines, to help them comply with the permit.

The bill’s next step is the Finance Committee.

 

 

Environment

GOP introduces bills to roll back renewable energy standard, repeal plastic bag ban

Plastic bags, once banned for commercial use on the Outer Banks, could make a comeback under a new House bill. Discarded bags can harm marine life, which mistaking them for food, eat them. (Photo: Wikicommons)

In 10,000 years, archaeologists will excavate our landfills and ask one another, “What was the deal with the 21st century obsession with plastic bags?”

The environmental bane –500 billion used worldwide each year — litter the roadsides, tree branches and, most important for the Outer Banks, the beach and the sea. Turtles and other marine life can get entangled in the bags, or eat them, mistaking them for food. Plastic bags and other plastic items do not biodegrade, but just break down into tinier pieces.

There is some division even among environmental groups about which is worse for the planet, paper or plastic. But the plastic bag’s harm to the marine life is irrefutable.

For these reasons, retailers on the barrier islands — Ocracoke, Hatteras and Bodie islands, and Corolla and Carova in Currituck County  — have been prohibited from providing plastic bags since 2010.

But that requirement would now be only voluntary under House Bill 271, which will be introduced today. In effect, it would repeal the ban on plastic bags on the Outer Banks. In its place, the bill allows for a “voluntary educational program informing citizens of the availability of recycling sites throughout the entire State.”

The bill contains several problems First, people can already recycle their plastic bags at the grocery store. Yet, discarded bags are ubiquitous, indicating that mere encouragement isn’t working. Secondly, it’s difficult to recycle this type of plastic. It doesn’t melt easily.  The bill also contains language that “businesses were required to pay consumers for bringing reusable bags to the stores.” The payment came in the form of a credit per bag — 5 cents. Customers could also request a paper bag. Nonetheless, the bill contends the ban allegedly has hindered business’ ability to hire more employees and expand. Well, plastic bags are a job creator: Somebody has to be paid to pick them up off the beach.

Primary sponsors: Three Republicans, Reps. John Bell, John Bradford and Beverly Boswell.

The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard turns 10 this year. Under the REPS, as it’s known, electric utilities have been required to sell a portion of their power from solar, wind and other clean sources. And almost every year since its passage, there conservative lawmakers have tried undo it. So far, those attempts have failed, but the measure returns this year in the form of House Bill 267, which  would rollback requirements under the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.

In 2012, the requirement was 3 percent of a utility’s 2011 retail sales; in 2015, that percentage increased to 6 percent of 2014 sales. Next year, that percentage was scheduled to increase to 10 percent, and ultimately reach 12.5 percent by the year 2021. But HB 267 reduces  the mandate to just 8 percent, without any future increases. Under the REPS, energy efficiency is allowed to account for up to a quarter of a utility’s savings. The new bill increases that number to up to 40 percent.

Primary sponsors: Reps. Jimmy Dixon and John Bell, both Republicans.

 

Commentary

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Yes, the Hollywood elite are crazy, but they’re also…well…right

Am I the only one who thinks it would’ve been hilarious if someone at the recent Golden Globes had frowned in disgust and hissed at the waiter: “I had the STEAK!” when the vegan meal was presented with a flourish? Turnabout’s fair play and all that.

I always feel a little guilty when seated beside the woke banquet guest with a little “V” card at her plate to signal the wait staff she has the non-meat entrée. Sometimes, as an icebreaker, I’ll ask if she’s Vulcan.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are vegan. OK, no they’re not. But they could be because it’s a noble concept which I hope to embrace someday. No, I don’t. Let’s face it: I’m just not that nice. Vegetarianism? Maybe. Vegan? I’d rather be forced to watch “Cats” on auto repeat with my eyes propped open with wires like that poor bastard in “A Clockwork Orange.”

The vegan meal was the talk of the night. Well, that and Jennifer Lopez’s freakishly oversized gold bow-enhanced gown—“Who’s it by? Thank you for asking, Ryan. It’s a new designer. She’s called Errybody’s nutty ol’ great aunt on Christmas morning…”

Much has been said about the hypocrisy of all the Hollywood elite chowing down on those vegan scallops (really mushrooms) just moments after arriving at the venue via enormous ozone killing limos.

To which I say: Oh, just shut up. It’s a big night. Did you really want Gwyneth Paltrow to explain to her Uber driver she wasn’t technically nude? I thought not.

Still, the Hollywood Foreign Press’s ham-handed (ha!) attempt at demonstrating concern for the planet by serving a meal in which no animals were harmed had the opposite result. That’s what happens these days. If you try to do the right thing, no matter how minor, you get lampooned and worse. In the South, this is known as “licking the red off someone’s candy.”

Was Scallopgate a bit overwrought and on the nose? Sure. It’s easy to skewer Hollywood hypocrisy on the reg but, if we’re being serious for a moment (which, y’all know I just hate), was it really such an awful idea to call attention to considering switching to a less meat-centric diet because it’s better for our dying planet? Nah. Nah, it wasn’t.

It’s the same way it’s fun for some to pounce on 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, making fun of how she won’t fly and instead crosses the ocean in an emission-free racing yacht. Yes, isn’t integrity HILARIOUS?! Isn’t she just the weirdest little thing with all that earnestness and caring? What a loser.

The new decade is a nice time to stop persecuting teenagers for giving a damn about the stuff (climate, gun control) that we “grownups” have avoided like a vending machine burrito up to now.

That said, I do hope we can do this with at least a little humor because, well, we need it. The Vulcans told me so.

Celia Rivenbark of Wilmington, N.C., is a New York Times-bestselling author and columnist. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.

Education, News

After a five-day hearing, a decision in Istation case is still weeks away

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

It’ll be more than five weeks before a decision is made on the fate of the controversial contract award to Istation to assess reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.

After a five-day hearing about the award, Jonathan Shaw, the general counsel for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) who presided over the hearing, granted the court reporter two weeks to transcribe recordings and attorneys three weeks to respond with proposed decisions.

On Friday, Tymica Dunn, procurement manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, spent several hours answering questions about the state procurement process, particularly about how the criteria for the reading assessment tool changed after a Request for Proposal (RFP) was cancelled and DPI entered directly into negotiation with Istation and Amplify.

A day earlier, Amplify CEO and co-founder Larry Berger testified that he believed the evaluation criteria for the state’s reading assessment tool was changed to disadvantage his firm.

Berger contended that during the RFP process an evaluation committee ranked Amplify above Istation and two other competitors for the lucrative state contract worth millions to the winning bidder.

Amplify CEO Larry Berger

But he said the evaluation criteria from the RFP to the negotiation phase was changed to make criteria less favorable to Amplify more important.

Cost, for example, was ranked highest in the negotiation phase but carried a lower ranking during the RFP process.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson eventually awarded Istation the contract, worth $8.3 million, Amplify’s bid was much higher, around $12 million. (Both firms eventually lowered prices during the negotiation phase but Istation’s remained low-bidder).

Amplify filed a protest after Johnson awarded Istation the contract. That led to this week’s hearing to determine whether DPI acted properly in the contract award.

Dunn was relatively new in her job as procurement manager when the reading assessment RFP fell into her lap.

DPI Procurement Manager Tymica Dunn

So, when the RFP reached the brink of cancellation after an evaluation committee formed to weigh proposals couldn’t reach consensus, Dunn asked officials with the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) for advice.

She said Pattie Bowers, director of procurement for DIT, told her and a colleague that the criteria could change in the negotiation phase because it would become a new procurement.

Mitch Armbruster, lead attorney for Amplify, said changing the criteria, and then not notifying his client about it, was unfair. Berger testified that he was never told about the changes.

One interesting development during hearing involved a discussion earlier in the week about the way DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson learned about an evaluation committee member’s breach of confidentiality, which played a part in the cancellation of one reading assessment RFP.

It’s been alleged that someone illegally monitored a former employee’s email that was still attached to her cell phone. The former employee received email messages discussing the procurement process from a member of the evaluation committee selected to evaluate reading diagnostic tools.

A printed copy of the exchange was slipped to DPI staffers who turned it over to Johnson.

DPI spokesman Graham Wilson confirmed in an email message that DPI is investigating the claim.

“We do not know where the text message came from,” Wilson said. “We are conducting an investigation to try to find out.” Read more

Commentary, News

Conservative NC lawmakers boost controversial King Day gun rally

Concerns continue to grow about a gun rights rally that has been planned for Richmond, Virginia on the upcoming January 20 King holiday.

Click here to read a Virginia Mercury story about how a state court judge recently upheld a temporary ban on bringing firearms onto the site of the rally and here to read about how the FBI has arrested three suspected members of a white supremacist group who planned on attending.

The state’s governor has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the event, which has been endorsed by some of the same actors that participated in the infamous 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Meanwhile, despite these many troubling aspects to the event and its obvious overtones of racism and violence, it appears numerous North Carolina lawmakers have signed on to a letter in support of the rally’s goal of promoting so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” cities and counties.

The following Facebook post by North Carolina State Rep. Steve Jarvis of Davidson County indicates that at least three North Carolina lawmakers will attend the rally and deliver a letter signed by 50 House members (see page one above — Raleigh’s News & Observer has the full letter here), including House Speaker Tim Moore. The

Today as your State House Representative I signed a letter in Support of the 2nd Amendment counties and cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This letter states that the North Carolina House Republican Caucus supports the counties and cities that have self-declared themselves as “2nd Amendment Sanctuaries”.
The signers of the letter include Speaker Tim Moore and Majority Leader John Bell Freshman Majority Leader Steve Jarvis as well as 47 other members. Representative Kidwell will attend a rally on January 20th where he and several other members of the North Carolina House of Representatives including Rep Michael Speciale (Craven) and Rep Bobby Hanig (Currituck) will present the letter to the members of the Virginia legislature. “It is our hope that we can impress upon the Virginia legislature the importance of protecting the rights of the people they represent”. Said Rep. Kidwell. As stated in the letter, North Carolina and Virginia have stood together beginning with the revolution, and it is the hope of the signers of this letter of support that we will continue to stand with the citizens as their rights are being attacked in much the same way they were under colonial rule.
All in all, this is pretty scary stuff. It’s one thing to hold strong views on gun rights, but it’s quite another to play footsy with avowed white supremacists and some of the other characters involved in this event. The North Carolina lawmakers should take a step back and rethink their implicit endorsement of the event.