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Chatham County streamlining will get rid of an unnecessary and cumbersome board

By Caroline Siverson
Posted Thursday, May 26, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - What's going on these days in Chatham County government? The so-called "streamlining" continues. It's easy to lose track of where we are in what could more accurately be described as a mudslide.

A public hearing has been scheduled for June 6 on proposed amendments to the county's Watershed Protection Ordinance (WPO), which would return the functions of the Watershed Review Board (WRB) to the county's Planning Board (PB).

Also in June, the Board of Commissioners (BoC) will discuss the removal of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requirement and its peer review by the Environmental Review Board (ERB) on commercial projects in general-use zones.

A public hearing will likely be scheduled in July for eliminating the same on conditional-use residential subdivisions.

The WRB is a state-mandated review board that makes decisions on appeals and variance requests. This board also makes recommendations to the county commissioners on amendments to the WPO, and acts in either an advisory capacity or in a quasi-judicial capacity, depending on the request. For example, the WRB most recently drafted amendments to the WPO to bring it into compliance with the Jordan Lake Rules, which are state regulations intended to restore, protect and maintain the water quality of Jordan Lake.

The ERB was established in 2007 to peer review EIAs for proposed developments, and to advise the BoC on environmental issues. Prior to that, the Planning Board had acted as the WRB. Once the ERB was established, the BoC designated the ERB as the WRB. The considerable scientific expertise of the ERB members made this assignment an absolute no-brainer.

So what logic is at play here?

The BoC majority has decided that the ERB must go. And so must the EIA. And now that we have seen the proposed budget, the Environmental Resources Department must also go, along with its director. All these are connected and interrelated, and all of them are to be eliminated. Next could be a rewrite of the Watershed Protection Ordinance by guess who? Our new "open-for-business" planning board.

I don't need to tell you that this will leave the county's environment and natural resources extremely vulnerable. Property owners will have no recourse and can expect no consideration from the county to protect their property from negative environmental impacts. Our newly elected commissioners would have us believe that they are only getting rid of an unnecessary and cumbersome board, and that we will still have environmental guidelines. But what will they be and who¹s going to enforce them? This is just plain disingenuous.

Environmental guidelines will be sidelined. There will be no one left with the scientific credentials within the county review process to assess and identify potential impacts. And state and federal government cuts are gutting the environmental watchdog agencies that we might depend on to protect the environment. Essentially we will be at the mercy of the goodwill of developers for commercial projects (and eventually large residential projects) to do the right things to protect our natural resources. I think we all know where that leaves us -- right back where we were in the mid-2000s. Mud running into our streams, rivers and lake. Mudslide.

Chatham citizens must let their elected officials know that this deliberate dismantling of protections for land, water, and our own welfare is unacceptable. Commissioner Chair Brian Bock has said on several occasions that the majority has already agreed that these decisions will be made, even before hearing from the citizens at public hearings! Is this the "transparent" government he's been talking about? Let the commissioners know how you feel about environmental protections and citizen input.

Write, call, and speak out.

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Chatham County streamlining will get rid of an unnecessary and cumbersome board

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