North Carolina’s coastal-management program risks losing millions of dollars in federal money each year and the ability to affect the outcome of federal permits if a bill that changes the composition of the state’s coastal commission becomes law and fails to meet federal muster.
Much of the publicity surrounding Senate Bill 10 has centered on the mass firing of members of the state’s four major rule-making commissions, which would allow a new Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature to immediately appoint like-minded members instead of waiting a few years for their terms to expire.
Political opponents and newspaper editorial writers heaped invectives about “power grabs” on the N.C. Senate after it passed the bill last week. Ignored, though, have been the wide-ranging effects the bill could have on the state’s 40-year-old program to protect natural resources along the coast and the role the federal government has in approving any changes to that program.
A bill making its way through the N.C. General Assembly would change the composition of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. Photo: WWAY-TV
The hub of the program is the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, which sets development rules and policies under the state’s 1974 Coastal Area Management Act, or CAMA. The bill would remake the commission. It would reduce its size from 15 to 11 members and, more importantly, change its composition. Seats that represent agriculture, commercial and sports fishing, forestry, marine ecology, conservation and banking would be eliminated. Local governments in the 20 coastal counties under the commission’s jurisdiction would have one representative on the reconstituted board, instead of two. The number of coastal developers or landowners would double. The governor and the legislature, which would make the appointments, would also have more freedom to choose whomever they like to at-large seats, which would increase from three to five.
None of the new commissioners, under the bill, would have to live on the coast or even in the state. Now, all but two of the members must reside in one of the 20 coastal counties and no more than two can live in any particular county. The bill eliminates any residency requirements.
It also does away with financial restrictions. Currently, nine of the members can’t earn a “significant” portion of their income from coastal land development, construction, real estate sales or lobbying. Neither can they serve as agents for land development or related businesses, such as engineering and banking. The bill would theoretically allow all the board members to earn their living in development and real-estate activities.
And that’s just not right, said Todd Miller. He’s the executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, a conservation group that Miller founded soon after the commission developed the first set of CAMA rules. There’s probably no one in the state who has attended more commission meetings – he’s rarely missed one since 1981 – or who knows more about how the commission works.
To insure that the commission could even-handedly set development rules, the crafters of CAMA were careful to fashion a board that represented the broad interests and concerns of the coastal counties, he explained. While it isn’t perfect, Miller said, the formula has generally worked to achieve a balance between the commission’s dual role of economic development and environmental protection.
“These are radical changes that threaten that balance,” he said of the bill. “They would also call into question the commission’s ability to protect the natural resources of the coast, which is its mandate under federal law.”
He’s talking here about the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, which helps states manage coastal habitats and resources. North Carolina is one of 34 states and territories that meet the requirements of the law. As a federally approved program, the state has gotten millions of federal dollars over the years to pay for planning and for staff at the N.C. Division of Coastal Management.
The state also has the authority to determine if federal development activities or permits are consistent with the state plans and policies. That can be a powerful tool. It was the state’s determination in the late 1980s that offshore drilling was inconsistent with its coastal-management policies that ultimately convinced then Mobil Oil to drop plans to drill off the N.C. coast.
Federal agencies have also delegated to the state a lot of authority over issuing federal permits, such as those needed to build bulkheads, docks and marinas. That’s meant quicker permit reviews in many cases.
But with the federal money and authority come strings. The federal government must approve any changes to state programs. Most are considered routine and don’t require much effort on the part of the states. Changes that are so substantial that they could alter the ability of a program to meet the mandates of the federal law are considered “amendments” and require a letter from the state justifying why the change is needed, a public hearing and possibly a study of the change’s potential environmental effects. The federal government uses that information to decide if a program can be amended and still meet the law.
Ultimately, the decision on whether a change is routine or substantial rests with the federal government, noted Braxton Davis, director of the coastal-management division. “They make the call,” he said, “but I don’t anticipate problems.”
The Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administers the federal law and manages the state programs. Margaret Davidson, the agency’s acting director, declined to comment about the proposed bill and its possible ramifications.
A former director, though, thinks the proposed changes are substantial enough to be considered an amendment to North Carolina’s program. “I think they are very significant changes to the coastal program,” said Jeff Benoit, who headed the NOAA agency in the late 1990s and approved the guidelines the agency still uses to determine when changes to programs warrant full review as amendments. “The real core of CAMA is the commission and the balance of that commission. It even says that in the act that created CAMA. To alter the composition this significantly raises real questions about how the authorities and the polices of the state program will be interpreted by the commission.”
Undergoing a full review as an amendment doesn’t mean that the changes won’t be approved by NOAA, said Benoit. “But it’s a public process and requires public review,” he said.
Benoit is now president of Restore America’s Estuaries, a coalition of conservation groups that works to protect and restore coastal estuaries.
If NOAA ultimately decides that the changes in the bill are an amendment that would prevent the state from fulfilling the protection requirements of federal law, the state would have to drop them or lose federal approval. The same would happen if the state chooses to ignore the federal requirements for amending its coastal program.
For one thing, that means no more federal money, said Davis. His agency got about $2.5 million from NOAA this year to pay for staff and to use as a match for grants. Maybe more important than the money is the ability to review federal projects or permits for consistency with state policies, he said. “It’s a very strong states’ rights component of the federal program and is what makes the program attractive to the states.” Davis said.
Senate Bill 10 is currently awaiting consideration in the state House.