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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.

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