Reprinted from the Tideland News in Swansboro.
RALEIGH — In a surprising move, the N.C. Supreme Court decided Friday that it will hear the long-running and controversial Hofmann Forest case before the state Court of Appeals rules on it.
The Supreme Court “snatch” — in the words of Ron Sutherland, one of the case’s lead plaintiffs — is but the latest twist in a long-running saga full of them.
Instead of selling the 79,000-acre forest to Hofmann Forest LLC, an Illinois-based agribusiness, N.C. State Universityannounced in early September that it would sell 23,000 acres to Hofmann Forest LLC and 56,000 acres to Alabama-based Resource Management Service, a timber investment management organization known for sustainable commercial forestry.
Opponents of the university’s planned sale of the Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones counties argue that the school should complete an environmental assessment on the potential effects of the property sale to the two private companies, as required under the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA.
The act “requires state agencies to review and report environmental effects of all activities that involve an action by a state agency, an expenditure of public monies or private use of public land, and have a potential negative environmental effect upon natural resources, public health and safety, natural beauty, or historical or cultural elements of the state.”
Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network, said Monday that he and others are still trying to figure out exactly what the court change means and how to proceed in the case.
According to James Conner, the attorney representing Sutherland and other sale opponents, the Supreme Court indicated that it could hear the case as early as Nov. 17, which is the date by which the school plans to close the sale to the two private companies.
“It would seem to us that a pending decision by the state Supreme Court might be a pretty good reason to put off that closing, but that won’t necessarily be the case,” Sutherland said Monday. “We’re not exactly sure why the Supreme Court did this, but there are at least a couple of theories.”
The first theory is that the Supreme Court has been under political pressure to take more cases and, with an election approaching, saw the Hofmann case as an important one to decide on a couple big issues: one, whether the opponents’ argument that SEPA applies to the sale of the land is valid; and two, whether the state’s environmental constitutional amendment, adopted in 1972, truly holds water.
The amendment states, “It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, open lands, and places of beauty.”
The university began acquiring the forest land in the 1930s for research.
Hofmann sale opponents believe the undeveloped forest, which is home to the headwaters of the White Oak, Trent and New rivers, is crucial to the protection of the quality of those waters and others along the coast.
As for the SEPA, N.C. State University argues that the Hofmann property is private, owned by a foundation within the school umbrella, so the law requiring an environmental assessment doesn’t apply. Sale opponents believe the property is public, as taxes have not been paid on it for years and the university is a public entity.
“We hope that’s the reason the court took the case,” Sutherland said. “That would mean the court sees that these are big issues that are important to the people of the state and to the environment.”
The second theory is that the Supreme Court, which has a majority of conservative judges, simply wanted to decide the case instead of letting a more unpredictable appeals court make the ruling, which was due any day.
“We hope that this is not the reason,” Sutherland said. “It would be a rather blatant act. But it’s hard to say exactly what the motivation might have been. If it’s this second theory that’s right, all we can do is encourage people to vote for good, honest judges who will look at this case fairly and make what we think is the right decision.”
Although N.C. Supreme Court members are elected in nonpartisan races, it’s been increasingly politicized in recent years, with outside money flowing into judges’ election campaigns.
Four of the seven seats on the N.C. Supreme Court are on the Nov. 4 ballot. Though judicial races are nonpartisan, the party affiliation of the candidates is well known. Two Republican and two Democrat incumbent justices will be on the ballot. Republicans are hoping to increase their majority on the court by ousting Justices Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson, the Democrats. Mark Martin, who was appointed in August by Gov. Pat McCrory as chief justice, and Robert N. Hunter Jr., who McCrory appointed to the court also in August, are the Republicans up for election.
“If we win in court, and I’m not a lawyer so take this with a grain of salt, it could set up a precedent, making it possible to sue state agencies and even the legislature for any major lapses in environmental judgment,” Sutherland said.
“If we lose, then all of the hard work of those people back in 1972 seems to go down in flames.
“SEPA is pretty important too,” Sutherland said, “but SEPA is already vulnerable to being changed with a moment’s notice by the current legislature, unlike the Constitution.”