The following editorial appeared in the January 26 edition of the Hendersonville Times-News:
Protecting nature is good for business
Protecting our region’s environment is an important job for legislators in Raleigh and Washington. So it makes sense that conservative, Republican-leaning Henderson County has as its state legislator Chuck McGrady, a former summer camp owner and president of the national Sierra Club who helped lead efforts to protect DuPont State Forest and other natural areas.McGrady was among three panelists at a forum the Hendersonville-based Environmental and Conservation Organization held Thursday night. The other panelists were D.J. Gerken, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Julie Mayfield, co-director of WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group. ECO held the meeting to discuss North Carolina’s “systematic rollback” of environmental protections.
The speakers focused primarily on the impact of three bills that became state law last year: a 59-page regulatory reform act, a bill to prevent local governments from updating building codes more than every six years, and a bill sponsored by McGrady to regionalize water and sewer service.
McGrady noted that he voted against House Bill 74, the regulatory reform act that started out as two pages but morphed in the Senate to include everything from hog lagoons to carbon monoxide detectors. The legislation, supported by other local legislators such as N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville and N.C. Rep. Chris Whitmire of Rosman, contains a number of changes that can accurately be described as rolling back environmental protections. These include changing groundwater contamination cleanup rules so that cleanup is not required until contamination reaches the property boundary, allowing local governments to adopt environmental rules stricter than state or federal rules only by unanimous vote, and putting an automatic expiration deadline on most state environmental rules unless they are reviewed and re-adopted by a state panel.
Mayfield noted that the changes will make it almost impossible for local governments to adopt more stringent environmental rules because of the difficulties in ever getting unanimous consensus. In our view, this rule runs against the idea that local voters and governments should be able to set their own rules, and wrongly sets a different standard for environmental versus other rules.
McGrady opposed requiring localities to have a unanimous vote to pass local green ordinances. He noted the bill contained “a lot of disturbing sections,” including one that allows outdoor advertising companies to cut trees around billboards and limits localities’ ability to regulate billboards.
McGrady pointed to an environmental victory brought about with help from local Republicans. They stopped a bill to change energy portfolio standards requiring utilities to produce 6 percent of energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar this year, eventually reaching 12.5 percent by 2020. He said H.B. 298 would’ve done away with future years’ energy savings.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, helped block the rollback of renewable energy standards on the Senate side. That move led to Apodaca receiving Legislator of the Year honors from the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “If there was a major environmental victory, this was it,” McGrady said.
Regarding his bill to combine Henderson County’s sewer system with Buncombe County’s Metropolitan Sewerage District and Asheville’s water system, McGrady said, “I don’t view this as a development that is hurting the environment or water quality. In fact, I don’t view this as Asheville’s water system.”
McGrady argued that Asheville has used its water system to “bully” its neighbors, including Henderson County, in the past.
McGrady is correct that the legislation creating a regional water and sewer authority does not roll back any environmental rules. The concern with this legislation is around the question, where will Raleigh stop in its effort to exert control over local governments?
McGrady deserves praise for his willingness to take the hot seat, answer questions and make the point that the words “conservative” and “conservation” are not mutually exclusive. He and other mountain legislators will have many more opportunities to show where they stand when it comes to protecting the environment, and the jobs dependent upon it, that are critical to our region.