RALEIGH – Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, confirmed Thursday that he’ll try again next session to pass restrictions on land-based wind farms that he says could be in conflict with military flight paths.
Brown’s bill was one of several regulatory efforts that fell victim to a contentious end-of-session showdown between the state House and Senate that left undone a number of major pieces of legislation before the North Carolina General Assembly adjourned last week.
Other victims were competing versions of bills to further trim, weaken or kill state regulations.
Calm Before the Storm
On the last afternoon of the session, Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, was one of several legislators expressing confidence that the House and Senate had reached a deal on a package of provisions drawn from four bills on regulations. “We got reg reform done,” McElraft said as she walked on to the House floor after a caucus meeting. “It’s not a bad bill.”
House and Senate conferees had worked late into the night to find a combination of provisions from that could pass both chambers.
Much like prior years, the final result involved House members whittling away at the Senate’s more aggressive policy changes. McElraft said the most controversial items had been removed from the compromise.
Among the more controversial items on this year’s list of Senate options were the end of the electronics recycling program, restrictions on wind-energy projects and several coastal provisions loosening regulations on stormwater, beach re-nourishment projects and sandbag rules.
What came out of those negotiations remains unknown. The resulting bill never made it to the floor of either chamber after the surprise rejection of two bills favored by Senate leaders blew up the end-of-session deal-making between the two chambers.
In a post on his blog, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, offered a rare, candid look at what happened.
“All but a handful of issues were resolved, leaving House conferees sharply divided over a provision relating to the internet sale of alcohol by distilleries, with House conferees not fully supportive of a compromise on repeal of the ban on electronic devices in landfills, and no agreement on a new law regulating the installation of wind farms in the potential flight paths of military aircraft,” McGrady wrote. “Being one of the conferees, I went to bed on the last morning expecting that those issues would be resolved and we’d pass another broad regulatory reform bill. It didn’t happen.”
McGrady said the final round of discussions never took place after an Asheville redistricting bill, backed by Senate Rules Chair Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, and a Jacksonville occupancy tax bill backed by Brown were rejected by the House.
The Senate instead moved quickly to wrap up its work after leaving the regulatory bills and a handful of others on the table. McGrady said Senate leaders declined to consider a last-minute House plan that would have approved the Senate’s wind-farm provisions and delayed consideration of electronics recycling until the long session, a goal of House negotiators.
Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, said the session seemed to represent a turning point, in which House members openly rebelled against the Senate’s heavy-handedness in pushing through bills.
“This may be the session where the House said ‘we’ve had enough,’” Diggins said yesterday.
Turbulence Over Turbines
The wind-energy bill was a top priority for Brown, who made clear in a statement Thursday that he wasn’t giving up.
Brown and seven others, including coastal legislators Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Reps. McElraft, George Cleveland, R-Onslow, and Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, said they plan to re-introduce the measure early next session and mount another fight for passage.
This year’s bill, The Military Operations Protection Act, was pitched by the senator as a way to make sure projects aren’t built that are incompatible with military flight paths. But critics have called it an attack on wind energy since it eliminates much of the state, including major portions of Eastern North Carolina, as potential sites for wind energy projects.
As “Coastal Review Online” has reported, the military wasn’t consulted about the need for the bill. Nor was it involved in its drafting.
The bill, introduced late in the session after the final budget compromise had been struck, relied on a series of maps drawn up at the behest of the McCrory administration’s new cabinet-level Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The maps detail military training routes and other military-related air traffic that could be in conflict with wind turbines, tall buildings and other structures. The maps have not been officially endorsed by military representatives.
Last week, while House negotiators continued to balk at the proposal, Brown and other supporters pressed their case.
“You will not likely be faced with a more important choice with regard to the military in your careers here,” Brown wrote in an email Friday morning and sent to each member of the House. “Choose wisely.”
In the email, Brown called the bill a “common-sense effort” to make sure tall structures aren’t built that would be incompatible with training routes and he railed against wind projects.
“Choose not to support HB 763 and watch as wind turbine projects claim our landscapes. Stand by and watch while these projects create few to no jobs and survive on the backs of taxpayer subsidies. Stand by and watch while energy from these projects is diverted to non-North Carolina citizens (as in the case of one such project where Virginia citizens are the beneficiaries). Stand by and be rendered helpless in the face of decisions in Washington to relocate our military missions due to incompatible use from surrounding lands.”
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she is not surprised to hear that the wind energy bill could return next year.
“The proponents of the bill, especially Senator Brown, really want to prohibit wind energy in Eastern North Carolina and they’re going to continue to pursue it.”
Harrison said she was glad to see the unravelling of the regulatory bill compromise. Since it would have been wrapped into a last-minute conference report, she said, the wind-energy section would have been voted on without even a committee hearing in the House. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate for us to enact it,” she said.
Harrison said in the long session there may be time to address some of the issues with the process for Department of Defense review of wind projects, but the legislature shouldn’t adopt a wholesale set of prohibitions.
“This state has significant wind-energy resources and we ought not be shutting it down,” she said.
Advocates for wind energy called the bill an attempt to stop projects and unnecessary given the military’s role in approval of projects.
“Communities in Eastern North Carolina should be able to attract investment from the wind industry through the comprehensive permitting process adopted by the legislature in 2013. That process requires input from the military,” Melissa Dickerson, coastal coordinator for the North Carolina Sierra Club, said after the Senate approved the bill in late June. “The proposed legislation adds unnecessary complexity and uncertainty for businesses navigating the wind permitting process.”
Studies for the Interim
Several of the provisions in the regulatory bills called for environmental studies and changes to environmental reports. While those did not survive the session, a number of studies woven into the budget and other legislation remain.
Grady McCallie, policy analyst with the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the failure to reach a compromise on the regulatory bills was probably helpful when it came to the studies.
“A number of the studies in the bills had due dates in December, which is just not enough time for them to be properly done,” he said. One would have required a comprehensive look at all state landfill regulations, he said.
One of the studies that did pass both chambers is a look at nutrient offsets, which McCallie said could lay the groundwork for the state to set up a system of mitigation banking for nutrients.
The budget bill also calls for continuation of an ongoing aquaculture study and $500,000 a year for the next four years for studies commissioned through UNC-Chapel Hill on nutrient-management strategies for Jordan and Fall lakes. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality is also given two years to produce a study on on-site treatments for nutrient management at the lakes including a review of algaecide and phosphorus‑locking technologies.