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Phobia Factorum in Erratum

By Donna Kelly
Posted Monday, September 12, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Tim Keim wrote an interesting column about Chatham County entitled “Welcome to Facto Phobia”. In it he claims that opposition to including the county’s Environmental Review Board (ERB) in the planning review process is due to naked prejudice against the purpose of the ERB and an unwillingness to learn about possible risks to the environment.

I attend most Chatham County Board of Commissioner(BOC) meetings and occasionally other Chatham advisory board meetings. I’ve heard Mr. Keim speak at BOC meetings. I attended the planning board meeting he describes in his column.

The main effect of the ERB is to delay permitting by up to sixty days

He says that the ERB is a group of local experts with training in a wide range of disciplines, who act only in an advisory capacity with no legislative or administrative authority. I’ve often heard this statement from supporters of the ERB. On the one hand, they have no real authority but, on the other, they are presented as the only thing preventing Chatham County from becoming an environmental wasteland. I have to ask, “Which is it?” They can’t have both no authority and the power to protect the environment in Chatham County. Yet I’ve often heard both statements from people at BOC meetings. If the county is the only protector of its environment, what role do NCDENR, Water Quality Division and the EPA play? Since most surface water comes from outside the county, how can the county regulate those rivers?

The main effect of the ERB is to delay permitting by up to sixty days. In the past, ERB opinions affected planning board decisions, as they both had anti-growth agendas.

Mr. Keim doesn’t seem to understand the sentiments of his fellow planning board members. I’ve heard all of their statements. Mr. Keim claims that their concerns weren’t based on substantive grounds and displayed naked prejudice. One thing that stood out during that discussion was that Mr. Keim and the other supporter of the ERB also provided little substantive evidence and displayed their naked prejudice in favor of the ERB. Mr. Keim based his support of the ERB on his personal knowledge of several current members of the board. He didn’t seem to consider the fact that the issue in question dealt with the ERB as an advisory board, not as a specific group of people. Those people can and will be replaced in the future, the nature of volunteer boards. Basing a decision on the individuals on a board is not a logical thing to do.

I’m afraid Mr. Keim doesn’t have a very good understanding of the history of environmental regulations in our county based on this description in his column “In fact, the ERB was founded precisely because there has been wide-scale damage done to our watershed and the state was doing little to nothing about it.” “Much of the county’s watershed is on the state’s list of impaired waters” is a statement of misdirection when water quality has improved in the last three decades in all local watersheds. Since the county does not have testing facilities for water quality, how can staff or boards make any decision based on factual evidence?

A Soil and Erosion Control Ordinance was put in place with an Erosion Control officer in 2005 so the county could take a more active role in protecting the local watershed. Erosion control is better managed at a local level rather than the state level and the county took action. This and other ordinances protect our environment through the actions of county staff, not advisory boards with no legislative or administrative authority. The county has no labs for testing of water which is done by the state or by private laboratories. Some evidence presented as sedimentation or erosion was, in fact, turbidity, which is not a serious environmental issue but a temporary discoloration of waters. The real threat to human health is unseen chemicals from upstream generators, not dirt. Most of the generators are out of business or have moved. Water quality has improved.

The ERB has continually promoted more stringent environmental regulations, as would be expected from an environmental organization. However, I have never seen any cost benefit analysis or other attempt to balance personal property and development rights against environmental protections. If there is any perceived environmental benefit, no matter how slight, the ERB has been in favor of more regulation regardless of the cost. There is serious doubt whether a board with such a biased view should have an active role in the planning process. Developers and business owners avoid the county because of the burdensome regulations and time consuming permitting process.

Although Mr. Keim neglected to mention it, the county is in the midst of reviewing and revising its entire permitting process. Before the 2008 regulations, departmental procedures were not designed for the development boom that occurred before the housing crash. A few poorly built developments are perceived to have caused some damage. In response, many new ordinances and procedures were rapidly put in place to prevent future damage. Unfortunately, since many people attacked the problem from different angles, there were conflicts and unclear portions of the ordinances. They are currently being improved to clarify the process so it’s understandable and enforceable. Passing unenforceable ordinances and creating advisory boards doesn’t protect anything.

Rather than opine that the BOC doesn’t want information, acknowledge that undoing regulations that promise permitting while not delivering it is righteous and proper. Proposed changes clarify
environmental regulation instead of leaving them to individual interpretation. The zoning ordinance mentions a review by the ERB when an Environmental Impact Assessment is required but does not specify just what the ERB reviews. Some ERB supporters claim that the ERB serves as a peer review of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The old policy requires developers to obtain an EIA, outside peer review of their EIA and an ERB review of that review. The new policy requires the EIA, outside peer review and no ERB review. The peer review is from a list of approved professionals. Why require redundant reviews by laymen? BOC and planning board hearings will be held in the future. If ERB members want to comment on permit applications, they may still do so.

Since Mr. Keim does attend some BOC meetings and appears to keep up with Chatham County business, especially with regard to planning issues, the question he asked at the planning board meeting is unfounded. The county reorganized several departments and positions dealing with environmental issues. These were discussed by the BOC. Detailed press releases were published regarding the qualifications of Mr. Lamontagne, P. E., head of the new Environmental Quality Department. Apparently Mr. Keim missed all of these discussions because he questioned whether those qualifications were reviewed. Did Mr. Keim really miss all the discussion or does he just listen to the people who tell him what he wants to hear?

The facts discredit Mr. Keim’s argument. Turn about is fair play.

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Phobia Factorum in Erratum
The facts discredit liberal Tim Keim’s arguments.