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Greensboro council undermining residents for developers, some say

by Eric Ginsburg

BY ERIC GINSBURG eric@yesweekly.com

Two state legislators and environmental advocates said last week that Greensboro City Council is acting in the interest of developers instead of taxpayers by trying to avoid implementation of the Jordan Lake Rules. The rules, which have been debated for more than a decade and were agreed upon by the city in 2009, impose certain restrictions on development in order to decrease nutrient runoff into the Haw River. The river feeds into Jordan Lake, a source of drinking water for 300,000 Triangle residents.

In a July 12 letter to council, Guilford County state representatives Alma Adams and Pricey Harrison said council’s request to postpone the implementation of the Jordan Lake Rules undermines the agreement negotiated in 2009, costs residents more money in the long run, ignores the benefits of implementation and was not transparent.

“In seeking the delay, the city council effectively committed to tax city residents, exceptionally inefficiently, to subsidize developers,” the letter said. “The process by which the delay proposal moved — without meaningful notice or informed discussion at a city council meeting; without proper debate in a committee with subject-matter expertise in the state legislature — meant that there was no forum and little time for consideration of the concerns outlined above. This is how bad process results in poor public policy.”

The council’s requested two-year delay was tacked onto three separate bills in the legislature the day before being voted on, a move Harrison said she has never seen. Two of the bills passed and await Gov. Bev Purdue’s approval. Greensboro City Council passed the request unanimously, with members saying the regulations would negatively impact development. The letter and environmental advocates said if the rules were in place, developers would have to pay the cost of abiding by them, but that a delay could mean more development that the city would be required to retrofit once the rules take effect.

Mayor Robbie Perkins said the delay was absolutely necessary to encourage development and not put the city at a competitive disadvantage by increasing construction and development costs. The city has worked very closely with the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, or TREBIC, Perkins said. The organization’s primary sponsors include North State Business, the Carroll Companies, and Signature Property Group.

“TREBIC and city staff were really partnered in this fight for the last 15 years against these rules,” Perkins said, adding that the Greensboro Partnership helped as well. “Clearly this would have had a devastating effect on the local economy in Greensboro and Alamance County. We are very pleased that the legislature took the stance they did.”

TREBIC President Marlene Sanford did not return calls for comment.

NC Conservation Network Policy Director Grady McCallie said residents would be forced to pay retrofitting costs through storm water fees or out of the city budget rather than developers if the rules took effect sooner.

“The city becomes responsible for paying to go back and fix it later,” McCallie said. “This delay hurts city residents. It’s adecision that TREBIC felt was in its interest. Greensboro needs to be responsible for its own pollution.”

The letter from Adams and Harrison cites research by the Center for Watershed Protection that claims it costs as much as seven times more to “install pollution controls after the fact than it does to build responsibly in the first place.”

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan dismissed the assertion that residents would ultimately pay more if the rules’ implementation were delayed.

“Until to you can pinpoint where certain chemicals originated from… we shouldn’t be held accountable for something that could have happened downstream,” Vaughan said. “We are struggling tooth and nail for every bit of development that we can get. As a council we agree that something needs to be done with Jordan Lake, but until the economy bounces back we can’t put that completely on the back of the taxpayers.”

Haw River Keeper Eliane Chiosso disagreed with Vaughan’s analysis and said residents in Chatham County will have to pay to retrofit development that happened there before the rules could take effect. Chiosso said the attitude of some lawmakers treated clean water as a luxury instead of a need and that Greensboro needs to understand it has a dog in the fight.

“These rules will help Greensboro even though people have been reluctant to see that Greensboro has problems with its own water quality,” she said. “These rules will mean cleaner creeks too.”

The rules aim to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff that ends up in the Jordan Lake, which McCallie said can be decreased with tools like storm water retention basins, rainwater gardens and rainwater capturing. Municipalities can also limit fertilizer use, he said, which is an easy way to significantly improve water quality.

The rules were based on years of scientific analysis — including work by the US Environmental Protection Agency — and input from local governments and thousands of residents, McCallie said.

Vaughan said in previous rounds of discussion on the issue, constituents spoke to her about their concern that Greensboro was paying an unfair portion of the costs and that the rules were based on “junk science.” Vaughan said improved monitoring methods could hold specific polluters accountable instead of forcing everyone to pay the price, adding that Greensboro is responsible with its discharge.

Perkins said he knew of three local developments totaling $20 million that would not go through if the rules were passed but would not say which developers were involved. Vaughan said she did not know of any such specific projects but understood it would hurt development in general.

Harrison said there is no evidence that it actually hinders development and said TREBIC would never be happy with any restrictions on development.

“Greensboro leaders have been convinced by the development community that it isn’t to Greensboro’s best interest,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be more expensive to clean up Jordan Lake because of this delay. It’s frustrating to me to come back and undermine the process with one week left in the session [and] no public notice.”

Perkins said there was no issue with the process and that had there been an opportunity for more public comment, it would have been overwhelmingly in favor of postponing the rules given the response the issue has received over the last 15 years.

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