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Wednesday, 31 July 2013 14:20

Taking the smart out of growth

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out natcornNorth Carolina House Bill 94 (Amend Environmental Laws) has passed the House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature. HB 94 is a large (43 pages), unwieldy piece of legislation, much of it aimed at dismantling tried, true and effective environmental policy that has pushed North Carolina to the forefront when it comes to highlighting the role good environmental protection plays in creating successful, sustainable economic growth while protecting the vibrant cultural and natural settings that create community and a sense of place.

 

“Amended” environmental laws per HB 94 will relax rules governing landfills, expand the range that utilities like Duke Energy can pollute with contaminants from coal ash ponds, further obfuscate chemical disclosures with regards to fracking plus many more. One particular and inexplicable thumb in the eye to Western North Carolina is the repeal of the Mountains Resources Planning Act. 

The Mountain Resources Planning Act was passed (with bipartisan support) in 2009. The act created the 17-member Mountain Resources Commission, which was tasked with coordinating the multiple ongoing local efforts to conserve water quality and protect wildlife habitat, native forests, scenic beauty and other natural resources of the 27 mountain counties. According to a 2009 press release the purpose of the act was to “…encourage quality growth and development while preserving the natural resources, open spaces, and farmland of the mountain region of Western North Carolina.”

Protocol dictated that the 17 members be representative of public, private and business interests across the region — the act specified that 10 members be from the public at large and be residents of the region; five members to represent regional councils of government; one member to represent the Western North Carolina Public Lands Council and one member appointed by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. And, hold on to your wallet, the act also declared,  “Salary; Expenses. Members of the Commission shall receive no salary for their service on the Commission but may receive per diem, subsistence, and travel allowances in accordance with Gen. Stat. 120-3.1, 138-5, or 138-6, as appropriate. All expenses shall be paid from funds available to the Commission through the Mountain Area Resources Fund, but no expenses shall be paid if the Mountain Area Resources Fund lacks the necessary funds.”

A major accomplishment of the Mountain Resources Commission was the creation of the Western North Carolina Vitality Index. The index incorporated data to describe and quantify the natural, built, human and cultural environments unique to the western mountains in a way that allows users to get a regional picture or to focus on a particular county. The Vitality Index provides 183 pages of information at one website that can be broken down into multiple searchable categories and provides a GIS viewer that allows users to layer data sets on a map of the 27 western counties. Industry and/or prospective employers could look at demographics like population, age, income, etc. The index also provides information on forested landscapes, farmland, development densities, steep slopes, etc that could be useful for developers and/or conservation groups like land trusts.

It’s kinda like one stop shopping. Bill Yarborough, a member of the Mountain Resources Commission’s Technical Advisory Board told Smoky Mountain News in 2012, “It can be used for a lot of different things, but if you are trying to recruit businesses into here, a lot of times they ask these kind of questions. Now the information is all in one place, and you don’t have to go to 20 different organizations or websites to try to find it.”

And why do we need to be rid of it? Republican Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, one of the bill’s sponsors in the Senate, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, “What we are trying to do is get rid of a lot of duplicative administrative units and centralize economic development.”

Hmmm, like maybe have everything on one website? Go figure.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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