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Public Hearings Don’t Matter Any More?

April 5, 2011

(Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published on March 31.)

In the past CCEC has been diligent about informing citizens of upcoming public hearings and urging them to show up and speak out. We’ve advocated for citizen involvement in such public forums because we value informed citizen input in critical governmental decisions, and believe it is important for commissioners to be open to and eager for people’s input. Now we are alarmed to learn that our newly elected county commissioners seem to think that public hearings really don’t matter anymore.

This was the clear message delivered by the Chatham Board of Commissioners Chair, Brian Bock, at the 2011 Chatham County Development Briefing held last Tuesday, March 21 at the Governor’s Club. Approximately 160 realtors, builders, and business people from Chatham and surrounding counties attended the event.

Speakers included Mark Zimmerman of Chapel Hill’s Great Harvest Bread Company; Kevin Graham, the project manager for Briar Chapel; Diane Reid of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation; and Chatham Commissioner Brian Bock. Kevin Graham’s and Diane Reid’s presentations featured photographs of scenic Chatham County. Their comments indicated that the rural qualities of Chatham, as well as developments with an emphasis on environmental stewardship and preservation of natural open spaces like Briar Chapel, are an economic asset to the county and attract desirable businesses.

Realtors love to talk about what a great success Briar Chapel turned out to be. But they neglect to mention the positive impact that Chatham County’s Compact Community Ordinance (CCO) had on the development. The original Briar Chapel proposal was denied by Chatham County. The county then initiated, developed, and finally approved the CCO that provided the regulations and guidelines needed for rational approval of a development on the size and scale of Briar Chapel. CCEC was born out of the painful labor to form a credible CCO, and citizen participation in the form of citizens’ advisory boards and citizen organizations was fundamental to the development of the CCO. The result is the much-lauded Briar Chapel, which is now held up as an example of green development and used as a beacon in marketing campaigns for economic development.

Yet Chairman Bock told recent attendees of the business summit that “advisory boards are a problem,” and his focus is on changing the rules and regulations to make it easier for projects to get through the bureaucracy. This includes shortening the approval process for developments by eliminating certain advisory board reviews, most notably that of the Environmental Review Board. Bock said there will be changes to the subdivision and zoning ordinances to further “streamline” (a.k.a. “deregulate”) processes, and county staff will be given much more discretion and approval power. Bock went on to state, “Of course, this still has to go to public hearing, but the majority of the board has agreed to these steps.”

Whoa … did he really say that? According to someone who was there, he most certainly did. In other words, regardless of what citizens say at the upcoming public hearings about the so-called “text amendments” to zoning ordinances, those changes are a done deal because the majority of the Board has already gotten together and made that decision. Bock went on to say, “There is a new Planning Board with seven new members with a ‘different attitude.’ They’ll ask, ‘How can we help you?’ rather than telling people to follow the rules.”

This new approach suggests that whatever advisory boards remain will be serving businesses and developers rather than Chatham citizens, adjacent landowners and the county’s natural resources. It’s in keeping with Commissioner Petty’s suggestion at the January BOC retreat that the Appearance Commission could act as “landscaping consultants” for a prospective applicant.

But that’s not all. Bock says he wants to make things even easier for developers by having a staff member “act as an ‘ombudsman’ who will steer businesses and developments through the approval process.” What exactly is he saying here? Is he proposing a new staff position? How will he accomplish this? And how is such a service a “core government function” (a standard to which all decisions by the new BOC majority are held)?

Chairman Bock has declared publicly that Chatham County is “Open For Business.” And with his comments last Tuesday, he has left little doubt that his true allegiance is to businesses and developers above all citizens and the natural resources of Chatham County. We’ve sat through this movie before during this past decade and watched the red carpet for “business as usual” roll over concerns for environmental protection and sustainability. The movie ends with a relative few taking home the goods at the expense of the common good.

Do public hearings still matter? The answer to that question lies in our hands. There’s a second one on regulatory processes and proposed changes to zoning ordinances scheduled for April 18. CCEC urges you to get your act together, show up and offer your two cents worth. Take a stand on these issues.

And let the commissioners know how you feel about public hearings.

Will NC and Chatham Go Hog Wild Over Fracking?

March 31, 2011

It was a rare barbecue event celebrated last Saturday near the Lee/Chatham county line, as reported by WRAL News. In fact, you could say it was a “Gas.” That’s gas as in natural gas, with methane as its principal component. It was not wood chips or charcoal, but gas mined from 1800 feet below the surface of the Piedmont’s Triassic Basin that cooked the pig for this celebration. It was the kind of “it’s-never-been-done-here-before” event that leaves geologists and CEO’s of gas drilling companies down right giddy. It’s the kind of giddiness that can spread like a virus to infect all kinds of folks whose appetites go way beyond pulled pork.

In a state currently with few energy sources of its own, but an appetite for relatively cheap alternatives to coal and nuclear, a sea of gas beneath its ancient shale formations is enough to make whole populations salivate and drool. Not the least of these is politicians looking for a quick fix to the problems caused by a growing population of energy over eaters. At first glance on the surface, this under the surface gold mine of methane can have everyone kicking up their heels and dancing in the aisles. It’s the kind of euphoria that can tempt you to think that just maybe one day in NC we’ll actually breed pigs that fly.

CAUTION! Pigs will never fly… and extracting natural gas from the bowels of the earth through the process of hydraulic fracturing is akin to opening Pandora’s Box. In Greek mythology, Pandora was given a box-jar which she was not to open under any circumstance. Impelled by her natural curiosity, Pandora opened the box-jar, and all the evil contained escaped and spread over the earth. Apparently no warning label was required in mythology, and today where “fracking” is allowed the same absence of warning holds true. Also absent are regulations and enforcement resources to protect people, animals and the environment from the ravages that so often accompany the invasive and traumatic operation.

Here in NC, we have wisely kept the lid on the box through laws that prohibit the kind of drilling that “fracking” entails. Such wisdom, however, is being tested as gas drilling companies tempt area landowners with predatory deeds to mineral rights, believing that friendly politicians will soon deep six the old laws and open the flood gates for the great NC gas rush just ahead. It’s a gamble they expect to win, and to win BIG.

As states, communities and citizens across the nation have learned over the past decade or so, there is a huge price to pay when allowing and inviting gas companies to plant wells that spring up and multiply like poison mushrooms. The question before us is whether the people of NC, of Chatham, Lee, Durham and other counties holding natural gas will have the wisdom to learn from others’ mistakes, or whether we will succumb to the folly of buying a pig in a poke. That is the path that some state legislators and local land owners are already pursuing.

If NC law makers and citizens of Chatham and similar gas laden counties continue to celebrate the methane beneath our shale without fully understanding and believing the horrible downside of fracking, we will be the poorer, not the richer for the choice. For this reason, CCEC along with other organizations and citizens concerned with the health and environmental issues raised by fracking, urge our neighbors and leaders to learn all we can about the dangers that accompany fracking. A good place to begin is by watching a video presented by Clean Water for North Carolina:

In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue to provide information, events and opportunities to learn about fracking and advocate for caution among legislators and landowners. Stay tuned and get involved. This is not an issue half a world away, but one as near as the land upon which we walk, the air we breathe and the ground and surface waters that give us life. Before NC goes hog wild over fracking, we need to heed the warning: ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware). We now know that NC natural gas can cook a pig. We need to realize it can also cook our goose.

~ Gary Simpson

WWP: Chatham Settled Too Cheap

March 17, 2011

To the Editor: The Chatham News/Record

While County Commissioner Chairman Brian Bock is to be commended for explaining his vote in favor of the WWP pipeline through Chatham County, his explanation raises more questions than it answers. Most importantly, it raises the question of whether our Board was snookered by the Wake forces of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, aka the WWP.

As Chairman Bock acknowledges, the WWP needed to appeal to our Board because the state statute (N.C.G.S. § 153A-15) prevents WWP from acquiring Chatham County property without Chatham’s consent. Bock says this statute “does not include all NC counties.” That’s technically true but a bit misleading; it actually includes 84 of NC’s 100 counties. Bock claims that if Chatham had said “No,” the WWP would have gotten the General Assembly to delete Chatham from the statute and he believes “they would have been able to get this bill passed quickly.” But — if WWP would have been able to get such quick help in the General Assembly, why did they agree to pay Chatham County $1/2 million for its consent? This amount may not be mega-bucks at least in Wake County, but WWP’s pain would be greater since it had already agreed to pay the same amount, another $1/2 million, to settle the lawsuit brought by New Hill. Moreover, since the statute applies both to the acquiring county, here Wake, and the victim county, here Chatham, the legislative fix might have required dropping Wake from the statute as well. That’s an outcome Wake might not want.

All of these factors suggest Chatham had the WWP much more over a barrel than Chairman Bock is willing to admit and that Chatham settled too cheap. In addition to the money, Chatham got a commitment from Cary and Apex not to annex into Chatham involuntarily and to seek legislation providing the same. But that doesn’t fix the problem. Past annexations have not been involuntary; they have been voluntary. It’s the developer who voluntarily seeks annexation by acquiring land on the condition that annexation will occur. Such voluntary annexation strips Chatham residents involuntarily of the rural lifestyle they sought and it puts all Chatham taxpayers involuntarily at risk to provide schools for these new Cary and Apex neighborhoods that lie in Chatham County.

Chairman Bock himself refers to the “negative impacts of routing the pipeline through Chatham.” But the deal he (and the other two new commissioners) cut with WWP allows it not only to acquire Chatham property but to exercise eminent domain against the Chatham landowners in the pipeline’s path. Yet, he tries to defend this action as being in line with his goal of “aggressively protect[ing] property rights.”

Chairman Bock notes the merit in “work[ing] cooperatively” with our neighbors and strengthening those relationships. Fine, but for the Chatham Board aggressively to protect its citizens and insist on fair bargains in its dealings with its neighbors won’t impair those goals. Unfortunately, Chatham did not get a fair bargain this time. The Chatham Commissioners had more cards in their hands than they played in cutting the pipeline deal.

John Graybeal

Damn the Regulations… Full Speed Ahead

March 16, 2011

“Streamlining” is the new buzzword in Chatham County government. And “flexibility” is its best friend. Looks like we’re going to hear those two a lot from our new board of commissioners, especially when it comes to county ordinances and regulations.

Let’s face it, no ordinance is absolutely perfect, and often the process of following regulations can be maddening for just about everyone. Some of us think that regulations are here just to thwart our plans. And others contend that they are necessary protections, part of modern life in an ever-urbanizing world.

The previous BOC was elected at a time of tremendous growth and development in Chatham County. During those boom times Chatham endeavored to create adequate regulations that would sufficiently protect our natural resources and quality of life, as well as property values. The previous BOC spent extensive time and utilized countless volunteer hours from citizen advisory boards, in addition to paying consultants, to research and develop feasible subdivision, zoning, and watershed protection ordinances.

But the newly elected commissioners believe those ordinances are hobbling economic progress. If we could just get rid of those pesky regulations, they suggest, businesses, industry, and development will just flock to Chatham County, bringing along jobs and prosperity!

The thorn in the side of any land developer is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). While the requirement for an EIA was not eliminated completely at the last commissioners’ meeting, the threshold that triggers one on a major subdivision project has been increased from 25 to 50 lots. They did eliminate the previously required Environmental Review Board (ERB) review, and substituted a peer review — and the time for this process has been shortened. One of the primary purposes of the Environmental Review Board, made up of qualified citizens with professional credentials, was to ensure an objective assessment of the environmental impact of subdivisions and avoid a possible conflict of interest that might occur when a peer review is paid for by the developer. While the ERB has not been extinguished, its charge has been greatly diminished, rendering it irrelevant for all practical purposes.

Other streamlining measures approved on March 7th give staff more discretion and approval authority, and shorten the allowed timeframe for the approval process. Sounds reasonable enough, but if building picks up again, they could find themselves quite pressed to give large projects due diligence.

Coming soon will be a discussion about changing the process for Conditional Use Zoning. Conditional Zoning (CZ) is being proposed for projects that need a change of zoning. Some might remember that CZ was considered by the Bunkey Morgan bloc in 2005, but was shelved. We will be watching this.

The BOC voted 4-1 to rescind the LEEDS Silver certification requirement for county building projects that are more than 20,000 square feet. The reasons given were a desire for flexibility and responsibility to taxpayers. The BOC has repeatedly stated that they support energy efficiency for new county buildings. They just don’t want to pay for this guarantee. Seems logical, but this flexibility will allow the BOC to use their own discretion regarding how much or how little energy efficiency they want to incorporate into a building project, and the citizens will have no surety that they are getting what they are paying for. The value of long-term savings has been dismissed as not quantifiable or measurable, and so not worth the certification. Taking this a step further, one can easily imagine an argument for eliminating energy-saving systems due to cost concerns.

This is a part of a pattern of this BOC: saying one thing and doing another.

They say they believe in equality and minority civil rights, but don’t want a human relations director to ensure that peoples’ rights are honored. They say they want to protect the private property rights of individual landowners, yet they voted to allow Western Wake Partners to negotiate directly with landowners along the pipeline route — under the prospect of eminent domain. They say they want to protect Chatham citizens from annexation, but refuse to safeguard them from the form of annexation (voluntary) that is most threatening. They say they care about the environment, but weaken the EIA and dismiss the value of the Environmental Review Board, both important tools for identifying natural resources and treasures that deserve protection. They say they want energy efficiency in county buildings, but remove the industry standard that would ensure it. They say they want to listen to the citizens, while they whittle away at genuine citizen involvement and oversight.

Pay attention. There will be more streamlining and flexibility to come, under the guise of economic development and fiscal responsibility.

To LEED … or Not to LEAD — That is the Question!

March 2, 2011

Think of the word “soup.” What name (Campbell’s) do we naturally put in front of it? To catch a sneeze, do I ask for a “facial tissue,” or do I call for a Kleenex? In the business world, successful companies are the ones that sear their brand into the minds of the consumer. Winning corporations stand by their brand, and create loyal and confident customers that will settle for nothing less than the best.

So, why would Chatham County settle for anything less than the best as it seeks to establish its place as THE leader in one of the hottest markets of the future, Green Building? Why would Chatham County bet its future on a model T Ford when it could choose a plug-in Prius or a Chevy Volt to get us there? That was exactly the kind of nitty-gritty question posed by architect Alicia Ravetto to BOC members considering doing away with “LEED” certification for building energy efficiency in Chatham.

[Note: LEED is a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. The LEED green building certification program encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through a suite of rating systems that recognize projects that implement strategies for better environmental and health performance.]

Ms. Ravetto, along with Paul Konove and another member of Chatham’s Green Building Task Force, Tom Foster, explained the history of LEED in Chatham and stated that if we are serious about energy efficient building, using LEED standards is the way to prove that. When LEED is implemented from the beginning of a project with critical early planning, and when there is an integrated approach, LEED certification offers long term energy and fiscal savings. Verification is critical in green building, and LEED is the best verification program, stated Ms. Ravetto.

The fate and future of LEED will be voted on at the next BOC meeting. The Board Chair states his concern about maintaining “flexibility,” and the newly elected Board members are ever mindful that they ran on a promise of protecting tax payers’ dollars. As BOC members strive for “flexibility,” we ask that they not become contortionists bending over backwards so far that they send Chatham backwards rather than forward as the leader in green building efficiency that leads us all to a more sustainable and profitable future. In the frenzy to cut and whittle (“streamline”) to save a penny, let’s not kill the goose and toss the baby out with the bath water. In the real world where brands are critical, the LEED brand is the payoff and the smart investment in Chatham’s future.

If you agree, please take time now to contact your new commissioners and urge them to lead by growing LEED in Chatham rather than cutting it off at its green trunk: brian.bock@chathamnc.org, walter.petty@chathamnc.org, pam.stewart@chathamnc.org. To learn more about the history of LEED in Chatham and why we need it for our future, you can read the presentations by Paul Konove and Alicia Ravetto.

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