Citizens Decry Rules on River Buffers
From May 2002 Carolina Journal
ERIK ROOT, assistant editor of Carolina Journal
HICKORY - Members of the North Carolina Citizens for a Sound
Economy met recently to discuss an issue affecting many North
Carolina property owners: the taking of property by government
through an idea environmentalists call "river
buffers." Several local citizens and elected officials
spoke at the meeting.
River buffer rules mandate that there be setbacks from
shorelines along rivers, creeks, rivers, lakes, and other bodies
of water in order to prevent water contamination. Some rules
mandate a 50-foot buffer, which forbids any development along a
river within 50 feet of the shoreline.
Other buffers have varying restrictions on development
depending on the proximity to the shore. This has implications
for private property owners who could be prohibited from doing
anything to their property. For those who own a small piece of
land near a body of water, it means they cannot modify their
land at all.
According to CSE, "new regulations on private property
were authorized under Section 7 of the North Carolina Clean
Water Act of 1999. This legislation gave the North Carolina
Environmental Management Commission (EMC) authority to impose
temporary buffer rules in the Catawba River Basin." Those
failing to follow the guidelines could face up to $25,000 in
fines per day.
According to literature from the North Carolina Department of
Environment and Natural Resources, buffers are necessary to
prevent water runoff filled with sediment and nutrients from
reaching streams. The NCDENR says buffers prevent erosion and
protect banks. However, as one property owner demonstrated at
the meeting, his property is eroding precisely because he has to
maintain the buffer. Because he cannot alter his property, when
the creek behind his house rises, it proceeds to erode more and
more of his property. The only thing he has been allowed to do
is move his fence line back to make way for the consuming water.
NCDENR also believes that property owners should have buffers
so that they can provide "shade," and "food...for
Speakers voice concerns
Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., one of the first speakers at the
event, summed up the problem: "I don't see how anybody
could have dreamed up what the people in Raleigh [have] done.
Raleigh and Washington both are things you must watch. Defend
yourself. You need to watch out for the state and federal
government." State Rep. Mark Hilton, R-Conover, who lives
in Catawba County, echoed Ballenger's sentiments: "There
are some liberals in Raleigh who want to regulate [some]
businesses out of existence." With an appeal to the
Constitution, Hilton pointed out that "if you are going to
regulate and take land, you must compensate" the owner.
NCDENR defends itself by stating that some things, such as
the cutting of trees, are allowed in buffer zones. However,
depending on the buffer, some things will be
"allowed," and others will not. Some regulations may
be loosened only if there are "no practical
alternatives." Either way, the state will need to approve
or disapprove any action in the zone. NCDENR believes that
buffers "protect property."
One unidentified speaker from McDowell County said that
"today when I hear about buffers, I think of a board that
is politically motivated and is set to carry out an
agenda." He questioned whether environmentalists pushing
the regulation really cared about clean water.
State Sen. Ken Moore, R-Lenoir, said he doubts
environmentalists' claim that the rules are meant to protect
water quality. Moore said water quality is better today than it
was five to 10 years ago. "It's much better now and they
won't tell you that," Moore said. He said cities are the
biggest polluters. Buffers that are instituted in most places
seek to combat a problem that does not emanate from rural North
Carolina, he said. Steve Hensen, representing the Southern
Appalachian Multiple Use Council (a 501c6), said the rules are
too broad and leave open too much for individual bureaucratic
interpretation. "Buffers depend on interpretations and
standards," he said. Hensen said buffers affect the
economics of timber values. "If you can't cut the timber,
you lose the value of that timber," Hensen said. He also
said such restrictions reduce the quantity and quality of the
next generation of trees. Hardwood trees need direct sunlight.
If the state prohibits property owners from cutting down trees
and opening up the property, the trees will not receive enough
sunlight. Loss of sunlight means less growth. Ultimately, this
all means that the property owner will suffer lost property
value and lost potential income.
Hensen said the laws and regulations in this case are not
based on science. "Emotionalism is what is used now,"
Hensen said. A radical philosophy is employed in the
environmental movement that amounts to "central control of
the land and resources," he said. The movement attracts
elements that are hostile to the property owners, he said. The
environmentalists are well-networked, Hensen said.
When a bill comes before the Assembly, legislators get
e-mails from all over the nation, making it appear as though
pressure is coming from legislators' constituents.
Dr. Clarence Hood, a former professor for agriculture and
engineering, agreed. This is "agenda-driven, not
science-driven," he said. He said that truth does not
reveal itself immediately and so buffers are poorly understood.
Also present was Robin Smith, assistant secretary of
environmental protection at NCDENR. She said buffer rules do not
violate the Constitution, but those attending found her
'bureaucratic speak' a bit difficult to decipher. Jonathan Hill
of CSE said "we all want clean water," but we all want
access to our property.