By Coastal Review on June 18, 2018
Dozens of coastal provisions were approved last week as the North Carolina General Assembly pushed through more than 100 bills in an effort to wrap up its 2018 short session by month’s end.
The week ended with approval of controversial coastal stormwater changes, a stalemate over legislation to expand the shellfish industry and rejection of a plan to allow beer and wine sales on the planned passenger-only ferry between Ocracoke and Hatteras.
In between, legislators fought for days over proposals aimed at reducing nuisance lawsuits over hog and poultry operations and fast-tracked a technical corrections bill that included significant changes to dredging funding and provisions in the budget in response to GenX and emerging contaminants.
This week, the legislature is expected to take action on a series of constitutional amendments to put before the voters in November, including giving the General Assembly more authority in drafting voter identification laws, a cap on income taxes and a constitutional right to hunt and fish.
Shellfish bill in limbo
Also this week, House and Senate negotiators will try again to reach agreement on a shellfish aquaculture bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort.
Cook’s measure, Senate Bill 738: Support Shellfish Industry, would create an expanded shellfish leasing program, but the size and scope of the operations and the potential for out-of-state companies to hold large leases in North Carolina waters has been a constant sticking point.
A conference committee that had been working on an agreement to get the bill through the House appeared to reach agreement on new language Thursday night.
Then on Friday, the Senate passed the new version, which reduced the individual lease size maximum from 300 to 200 acres. But the House leadership later pulled the bill from its calendar and sent it to the House Rules Committee, which did not take it up during its final meeting of the week.
During debate in the Senate earlier Friday, Cook said he believed the two chambers had reached a deal after agreeing to reduce the size of the leases and limit them to Pamlico Sound.
In a text message to Coastal Review Online Saturday, Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said she wouldn’t know the bill’s fate for certain until this week.
“Not sure,” she wrote, “could be dead for the session.”
If so, the outcome would be a major setback for Virginia-based Cooke Seafood USA Inc., the corporation that acquired Wanchese Fish Co. in 2015 and lobbied successfully last year to allow out-of-state corporations to build up to 1,500-acre aquaculture operations in state waters.
That bill, also sponsored by Cook, was signed by the governor in late July 2017 with little public debate. However, it was later determined not to apply to shellfish farms, so Cooke USA has continued to seek permission to operate large shellfish farms in North Carolina.
Senate Bill 738 also includes siting criteria and administrative reviews for bottom and water column leasing programs and a set of shellfish enterprise zones to help efforts to market the state’s oyster industry. Cook had asked the North Carolina Coastal Federation to review the parts of his bill that established procedures for siting leases.
“We offered ideas to try to reduce conflicts with traditional uses of coastal waters but were not asked to weigh in on lease sizes and residency requirements,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the federation.
When the bill was introduced, size and out-of-state residency changes supported by Cooke Seafood immediately generated intense public opposition by shellfish growers and other fishermen.
Although chances are slim that further compromise could be reached in the remaining days of the session, efforts to rebuild the state’s oyster population and market aquaculture continue. Any new legislation next year is likely to build on a report due late this year on an overall strategy. In 2016, as part of its initial round of studies, the legislature directed the new North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to convene a group of stakeholders to work on the ecological and economic stability of the state’s shellfish industry.
“This controversial bill has generated a lot more interest in this study by fishermen and shellfish growers,” said Miller. “That’s good, because the study needs diverse and expanded stakeholder involvement to make sure it reflects the concerns and needs of our coastal communities.”
The report is due at the end of December.
Alcohol provision jettisoned
It came down to the wire, but a plan to allow beer and wine sales on the new Ocracoke-Hatteras passenger ferry when it begins service was eliminated after a last-minute vote in the House to approve a rewrite of the omnibus transportation act that left it out of the bill.
Earlier in the week, prospects were favorable for the provision, which would have applied to passenger-only ferries, since it was included in must-pass transportation legislation. A close, 56-57 vote Thursday to take out the provision failed, but likely because it would have also rescinded existing alcohol service on trains. A group of conservative House members refused to budge and Friday, House leaders granted another up-or-down vote on just the ferry section.
Those opposed to alcohol sales, including McElraft, argued that inebriated passengers could create security issues on the ferry and the state shouldn’t be involved in serving drinks.
Proponents of the plan said there would be security to assure safety on the run and that the alcohol sales are part of the economic model the partnership backing the new ferry used to make it feasible. Drinks on the ferry, they argued, would be served by a private contractor and not a state employee.
Coastal representatives voting to take the alcohol provision out of the final version of the bill were George Cleveland, R-Onslow, Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, and Bob Steinberg, R-Chowan.
Voting against removing the alcohol sales provision were Reps. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, Robert Muller, R-Pender, and Michael Speciale, R-Craven.
Reps. McElraft, Beverly Boswell, R-Dare, and Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, were absent and did not vote.
Also clearing the legislature on the last day of a hectic week was this year’s edition in a series of “regulatory reform” bills. The latest measure, like its predecessors, also featured numerous environmental rule and policy changes.
Among the most controversial changes this year is a provision introduced and pushed for last year by Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, aimed at giving property owners in a New Hanover County subdivision relief in a case that involves overbuilding of impervious areas.
Environmental organizations have opposed the provision, saying it has wider applications and amounts to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for developers who ignore or bypass stormwater requirements.
In hearings last year, Department of Environmental Quality officials said they had reached an agreement with homeowners and the change was unnecessary. They warned that the provision was written in a way that could apply to at least 150 other coastal subdivisions.
In House floor debate Friday, Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, said that while the idea is to help residents in an older subdivision who were not informed of the violations by the developer, the provision sets a dangerous precedent.
“While I think the intention is probably pretty good, it’s so broadly drawn that we don’t have any idea how many subdivisions we are unwittingly encouraging to not take care of their stormwater plans,” she said.
Butler said the legislature should revisit the provision next session to better understand the consequences and make changes.
Sections of the Regulatory Reform Act of 2018 include expanding the geographic range for importation of American eels to the Chesapeake Bay by adding Maryland to Virginia and South Carolina as the states exempt from permit requirements under the Marine and Estuarine Organisms Rule.
Budget passes, so do revisions
The 2018 budget adjustment legislation became law last week with the General Assembly’s final override vote of Cooper’s veto on Tuesday.
Although that bill remains the same, the legislature followed up quickly with a technical corrections bill that changed a section related to DEQ enforcement of GenX and other per and poly- fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that specifically adds air emissions of PFAS to actions covered under the section.
The technical corrections bill also directs that $300,000 of the $2,119,000 in funds carried forward for maintenance of the Manteo Old House Channel be allocated to the North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation for the Oyster Highway project on the New River in Onslow County.
The remaining $1,919,000 for the Old House Channel project is shifted to maintenance dredging of Ranges 1 to 4 of the Manteo Channel. The bill also removes a match requirement for use of those funds.