Candidates diverge on environment|Editor’s note: This concludes three-part coverage of an impromptu debate between two state Senate candidates vying to represent eight counties, including Beaufort County.

Published 10:05 pm Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Staff Writer

Marc Basnight and Hood Richardson found common ground on a number of issues in an impromptu debate last week, but the candidates were largely divided on the issue of environmental regulations.
The pair did come together around the notion that some of these regulations — or regulatory bodies — are too severe in the area of enforcement, but they disagreed when identifying the bodies they said were the main culprits.
Richardson, a Washington Republican, came out in favor of scrapping the N.C. Environmental Management Commission.
According to the EMC’s website, the entity’s 19 members are appointed by the governor, the state House speaker and the state Senate president pro tempore — who happens to be Richardson’s opponent, Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare.
“I think we’ve outgrown the concept of the Environmental Management Commission,” Richardson said. “I think that has gotten away from us and has become a thing unto itself, out of control. The Legislature needs to take a look at restructuring the Environmental Management Commission and the way that we go about doing environmental rules, environmental enforcement in North Carolina. As long as we keep the system in force, in effect, that we have now, we’re going to have just what we have now, and that’s one of the reasons why this system is so oppressive.”
Richardson has a land-surveying and engineering business, so he deals directly with environmental agencies on a regular basis, he pointed out.
In rebuttal, Basnight, a Manteo resident, started off with an example. The senator said his friend and former Senate staff member, Rolf Blizzard, works for Turnpike Properties, which had tried to develop two parcels in Beaufort County.
“They got their permits, they got their sewage,” Basnight continued. “They have put both projects on hold. The economy, selling land and houses, has just about disappeared. They also moved to South Carolina to develop a like kind of property on the water. Rolf called me to tell me, ‘I thought North Carolina was bad.’ He said, ‘But don’t got to South Carolina. You cannot control or affect your project even marginally such as you can in North Carolina.’”
Basnight’s point was that North Carolina’s environmental regulations aren’t as oppressive as some other states’.
“There are extremes in all states,” he said.
He said his staff “spends a generous amount of time” helping people sort through the permitting process.
“I agree with Hood that there is too much of a grip on the people of North Carolina through a bureaucracy and a permitting system that, once it gets in the bowels of the government, it sort of changes its mission and its habits,” he said.
Richardson nodded to the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program as a group he contends is bloated and unfriendly to developers.
“They now have several hundred people in that department,” he said of the EEP.
Tad Boggs, communications director for the EEP, said the agency has a staff of 53 people.
“I’m not sure where the other number came from,” Boggs said.
The EEP operates under the aegis of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he said.
“If we were to do away with our staff, the state of North Carolina’s staff in some of these areas, like North Carolina EEP, we wouldn’t even have to contend with these regulations,” Richardson said in the debate.
The EEP is a “nonregulatory” agency that follows guidelines handed down through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Boggs said.
Shaping state and federal mandates is outside the EEP’s purview, he said.
“We don’t make the rules that our program operates under, and the bottom line is that you have a federal Clean Water Act, you have state clean water regulations,” Boggs concluded.
Richardson indicated the state could fight some of these regulations through a legislative effort, and alleged that state environmental agencies “hold hands” with the federal government.
“The fact that the state has created this infrastructure that’s present, that goes out and holds hands with these other agencies — that is causing our problem,” he said. “I think the House and the Senate has been trapped into some of this stuff without realizing it and, as the senator himself said — and I agree with him — these things take a life of their own and they grow into something that nobody ever thought they would grow into.”
Basnight agreed “abuses” are perpetrated by some environmental agencies, naming the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers as two of the perpetrators.
“That is more of the abuse that I see, not to say that we don’t get errors from” the N.C. Division of Coastal Management or the Division of Water Quality, he said.
“Water quality is very abusive at times,” Basnight went on. “I saw that on a man on Pungo Creek trying to build a bulkhead, and they asked for a second review not (under the Division of Coastal Management) but by water quality, a needless request.”
Basnight said officials should push back against unnecessarily binding regulations “as much as one can offer.”
“But is North Carolina more restrictive than Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia? I would say not,” he said. “Does that make us perfect? Absolutely not, in no regard or no way.”
Basnight said that, in Virginia, 200 feet is the “setback” — the distance a project must be from the water — for any construction project on a body of water like the James River.
According to Gary Waugh, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act calls for a “buffer area not less than 100 feet adjacent to tidal wetlands, nontidal wetlands” and tidal streams and shores.
“A locality would have the option of going to a 200 foot buffer,” Waugh said, adding he wasn’t aware of any municipality that had established such a buffer on the James River.
“It’s 100 feet, minimum, not 200 feet,” he said.
Neither Basnight nor Richardson spoke favorably of federal environmental regulators.
“So the federal government, I’m not fan of in efficiencies or responding to the personal needs of a property owner or the public needs of a replacement of a bridge,” Basnight remarked.