On Monday, Wake County commissioners voted to kill a proposal that would have created badly needed school capacity near downtown Raleigh.
The commissioners considered buying the former YWCA building on East Hargett Street to convert into a school. It would have been a win for Raleigh considering city councilors are seeking to increase density in downtown, even though there are few plots of land left in the city's core where new schools can be built.
Here's a partial account of Monday's commissioner's meeting from the WakeEd blog.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners had agreed Nov. 19 to purchase the property, but title problems were later discovered with one of the three tracts in the deal. The school system asked commissioners to approve today this amended deal allowing it to split up the purchase into two parts.
But in a departure from the 4-3 vote in November, the commissioners unanimously voted today for Commissioner Tony Gurley's motion to reject the new request and to declare the prior approval dead.
School staff said that the seller, the bankruptcy agent for the YWCA, was balking at delaying the deal. The school district's proposal was to ask commissioners for a new deal to pay $850,000 so that the first two tracts could be closed with the remaining $150,000 to come when the title issues with the third tract were resolved.
Commissioners will be able to take up the proposal again, and may be willing to move it forward, if the title problems are sorted out.
If the proposal doesn't move forward it's a bad deal for downtown Raleigh which is already playing catch up on school capacity.
Raleigh’s school-aged population grew in total numbers by more than three times as much as the next closest municipality, Cary. In relation to growth, however, the number of schools built in Raleigh does not seem to line up.
While Raleigh’s school-age population grew in volume by three times more than Cary’s, only two more schools were built in Raleigh than in Cary.
Federal Census data show that Raleigh gained more than 35,000 school-aged children between 2000 and 2010. Cary experienced the second biggest jump in numbers, adding more than 10,000 children under the age of 18.
Using an average class size of 27 for K-12, that means Raleigh’s school population grew by 1,320 classrooms. For Cary, growth measured in classrooms would be 372.
John Skvarla, the newly anointed Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has publicly stated that under his watch, regulations—and the relaxation thereof—will be grounded in science and fact.
In an illuminating interview with WRAL’s Laura Leslie, Skvarla failed the scientific sniff test. (The portions referenced below begin around 11:21.)
First, Skvarla insinuated that oil and gas are infinite, renewable resources. When Leslie noted that these fossil fuels are not renewable, he replied, “Some people would disagree with you. The Russians, for example, have always drilled oil as if it’s a renewable resource … There is a lot of different scientific opinion on that.”
The abiotic theory of oil, as it’s known, holds that oil is naturally produced deep underground rather than is converted from decomposed and organic material, such as plants and prehistoric forests. Abioticians (We made up that word—why not, if you can make up science?) use this theory to support the idea that we need not wean ourselves off fossil fuels because they’ll never run out.
Creationists have latched on to the theory as way to prove the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
Now Skvarla is right in that the Russians proposed this theory in the 19th century, but it has gained no legitimate, scientific consensus. That didn’t stop astronomer Thomas Gold, who revived the theory in a 1998 book.
In 2005, abiotics was explored again in Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil by Jerome Corsi and Craig R. Smith, neither of whom is a scientist.
(Corsi has a doctorate in political science from Harvard. Smith is chairman of Swiss America Trading Corporation, an investment firm specializing in U.S. gold and silver coins.)
INDY Week called Dr. John Rogers, UNC professor emeritus of geology, about abiotics. He says the idea that oil and gas are renewable resources is incorrect. “Abiotic oil is another idea that conservatives have latched onto as a way of denying that there is any limitation that the Earth places on the way we live,” Rogers says.
“The idea that there is carbon deep in the Earth is true,” he adds. “The problem is that there is very little in the deep crust in comparison to the oil that has been found and produced by decomposition.”
Rogers, who is writing a book, Rational Environmentalism, taught at UNC from 1975—1997. He says the anti-science movement has strengthened in recent years because of greed.
“If you accept the idea that the Earth puts limits on itself, you have to understand science. We can’t simply manipulate our way to wealth,” he says. “And the modern feeling is that all we have to do is adjust taxes and laws and we will be become rich.”
While we’re comparing credentials—Rogers being a geologist and Corsi being a political scientist—it should be noted that Corsi also pens columns for the conservative website WorldNetDaily, which often trafficks in conspiracy theories and misinformation. WND published the Black Gold book.
Corsi’s previous work includes two books attacking Democrats, including The Obama Nation. A bestseller, it was widely criticized for serious inaccuracies, including that Obama could claim to be a Kenyan citizen and that he was once a practicing Muslim.
Factcheck.org, which is based at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, judged it to be “what a hack journalist might call a ‘paste-up job,’ gluing together snippets from ehre and there without much regard for their truthfulness or accuracy. … A comprehensive review of all the false claims in Corsi's book would itself be a book,” Joe Miller wrote on the Factcheck.org website.
These are the minds from which abiotics sprang—and our new Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources is parading around a scientifically bereft theory.
But wait, there’s more.
If you enjoy reading instruction manuals, chances are Friday's webinar report on a long-awaited fracking study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was a hoot.
EPA scientist Jeanne Briskin, who is helping to lead the study, explained the multi-pronged approach the agency is taking to tackle fracking, which could begin permitting in North Carolina as soon as 2014. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's when the EPA expects to issue its draft report on the environmental impacts of the controversial drilling method.
The EPA study is expected to focus on fracking's effect on groundwater, water supply and wastewater treatment. All are key issues considering the widespread reports blaming fracking for water pollution in U.S. states that already allow the drilling.
Briskin said EPA research projects include analysis of fracking chemicals (dutifully listed on FracFocus' online registry of chemicals), spills, water-use scenarios and wastewater treatment. Work is also underway to develop methods for identifying the source of water contamination, vital if environmentalists are to concretely link the drilling to pollution reports.
EPA case studies of drinking water impacts are ongoing in fracking states, such as Colorado, North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania, Briskin said.
Additionally, EPA officials are planning five "technical roundtables" on fracking in 2013, starting with a Feb. 25 session on analytical chemical methods in the Triangle, according to Briskin. In April, expect roundtables on well operations and wastewater treatment, followed by meets on water acquisition and case studies in June.
After the release of its 2014 draft report, there will be a period for a science peer review, after which the agency will issue its final report, Briskin said.
In the meantime, the Indy will keep tabs on the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, the group charged with readying fracking regulations. The group next meets Jan. 24-25.
Creating urban gardens on vacant lots in economically depressed areas of Raleigh will now be easier, after a City Council vote Wednesday.
Progressive urban planning organizations maintain that community gardens can have a major impact, not only by creating additional food sources in areas with less access to grocery stores, but also by creating a gathering place within the community.
INDY Week previously reported on pirate gardens in Raleigh, which defy the current zoning code. Many of those gardens will now be under the umbrella of the new provision.
But the change won't happen immediately. It is attached to an exhaustive overhaul of the city's zoning code called the Unified Development Ordinance. City councilors could take anywhere from several months to more than a year to fully vet all of the changes.
Urban gardens in vacant lots, as opposed to lots with attached dwellings, had previously required a special-use permit, which required applicants to pay $200 and go through a special hearing process. Such gardens will be limited-use under the new code, removing the need for a fee or special hearing.
The change currently only applies to areas of the city zoned R-10, which allows up to 10 dwelling units to be built per one acre. The majority of R-10 zoned property runs from south to east along the city's beltline and comprises many of Raleigh's food deserts.
R-10 doesn't include The Wedge, a pirate garden near NC State University, which we previously reported on. However, as changes to the UDO continue, R-10 zoning is likely to expand into more of the city's core, according to city planners.
While The Wedge is technically illegal, it has benefited from city money and the city has made no effort to shut the garden down.
Those looking for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) final word on fracking impacts will have to wait—at least until 2014.
But the EPA is hosting webinars today and tomorrow to provide a progress report on the ongoing study. By this morning, all slots were filled for today's 2 p.m. webinar, although spots remained for Friday's noon session. Register here.
According to the EPA, the webinar is going to offer updates on the study's approach and status, as well as five technical roundables held in Nov. 2012.
EPA officials say the purpose of the Congress-requested study will be to "assess the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, if any, and to identify the driving factors that may affect the severity and frequency of such impacts."
Research will key on drinking water impacts, the impacts of fracking chemicals and fracking wastewater.
The controversial drilling practice, which could begin permitting in North Carolina as soon as 2014, has been dogged by reports of groundwater contamination and other environmental impacts, such as increased seismic activity in fracking regions. Proponents, however, say the drilling will be a boon to the state's lagging economy.
Follow the ongoing work of the state's Mining and Energy Commission here. The commission and its various committees will next meet Jan. 24-25 in Raleigh.
A much-anticipated civil rights lawsuit for Alamance County's embattled sheriff is upon us.
In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it has officially filed a civil suit against Sheriff Terry Johnson, three months after accusing Johnson's office of racially profiling Latinos.
Following a two-year investigation of Johnson's office, DOJ officials alleged in September that Alamance deputies target Latinos for traffic stops, install checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods and vary enforcement activity based on a driver's ethnicity.
The DOJ statement came weeks after an Indy analysis of traffic stop data found Latinos were twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops, a key finding because—under Alamance's now stripped 287(g) partnership with federal customs officials—Alamance deputies could spur deportations upon arrest.
“This is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff who misuses his position of authority to unlawfully target Latinos in Alamance County,” said Thomas E. Perez, DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement Thursday. “Sheriff Johnson’s directives and leadership have caused ACSO to violate the constitutional rights of Latinos in Alamance County and eroded public trust in ACSO.”
In the release, the DOJ said Alamance "declined to enter into meaningful settlement negotiations" after the September allegations.
The DOJ goes on to say that Johnson's tactics violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Johnson's office has long maintained that there is no evidence of profiling in Alamance.
There was no white smoke flowing from Gov.-elect Pat McCrory's chimney to indicate he had selected Art Pope, one of the most powerful people in North Carolina politics, to be his new budget director. But a h/t to WRAL, which reported that the conservative millionaire will be the No. 2 man in charge of crafting the state's financial priorities.
• Higher ed? See ya. Pope and his many think tanks and foundations have long advocated for cutting funding to the state university system. (Earlier this year, Pope expanded his power base when he was named to UNC's Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions.)
• K-12? Bye-bye. Pope's campaign contributions have bankrolled the re-elections of many Republicans who want to privatize the public school system through charter schools and other sleights of hand.
• Environmental regulation and enforcement? Those efforts were chronically underfunded even during Democratic administrations. The folks at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources are probably cleaning out their desks now.
• Is there any good news? Well, unlike the bulk of his foundation and think tank operations, at least Pope's activities will now be subject to open records and open meetings laws—as long as we have them.
Problems remain, however. Recent changes to Medicaid policy have lowered the payments made to reimburse group caregivers for round-the-clock services like dressing and eating assistance. Faced with decreased payments, group home operators are worried they'll either have to evict residents or shut down altogether.
As reported by our own Bob Geary, legislators created a $39.7 million fund to assist the affected adult care homes during last year's budget negotiations. But language in the bill conspicuously excludes group homes from sharing in the money. Representative Nelson Dollar, Republican chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, has said he was not aware of the exclusion at the time.
The new plan gives lawmakers just a short window with which to come up with a permanent solution, said Perdue. Any amendments to the budget are on hold until the General Assembly reconvenes. Legislators report back to work on January 9.
After heading up the McCrory's transition team, Stith, a former Durham City Councilman and one-time candidate for Lieutenant Governor, has been tasked with running the governor-elect's administration. McCrory made the announcement in a Thursday press conference introducing Stith, along with two other senior members of his new administration.
Followers of Durham politics will remember Stith as the lone conservative voice on what remains a left-leaning city council. After serving for seven years, he lost a 2007 mayoral bid to Bill Bell. As noted by the Indy, Stith raised gobs of money—most of it contributed by well-heeled members of the local business community. On election day, he lost with 42 percent of the vote to Bell's 58 percent.
The years since have been relatively quiet. At the end of Stith's last term on Durham City Council, he decamped for the consulting industry. Still, his conservative roots go deep. In 2005, he co-founded the John Pope Civitas institute, a think tank backed by conservative heavyweights like Art Pope. Stith, who is African-American, also helped coordinate McCrory's minority outreach efforts. So, his return to politics isn't exactly surprising. Whether he has aspirations beyond playing McCrory's lead traffic cop remains to be seen.
Thus far, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission's meetings have been primarily organizational in nature, with members debating such things as pre-meeting prayers and committee assignments.
But commission Chair Jim Womack told members of the N.C. General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission Thursday morning that the group expects its first "substantive" discussion of fracking regulations next week.
"It'll be the first time that we actually start tackling the issues," Womack said.
The mining commission includes drilling industry reps, geologists, a handful of conservationists and local government leaders like Womack—a county commissioner in the likely drilling hub of Lee County. The commission was created when lawmakers voted in July to begin the controversial drilling practice as soon as 2014. In the meantime, Womack's commission is charged with building a regulatory framework.
Proponents say fracking will bolster the state's lagging economy with jobs and cash while providing a cache of locally-grown energy. Critics, however, note many reports of environmental pollution and increased seismic activity blamed on the drilling in other states.
The commission has split into six committees focusing on topics such as mining, civil penalties, environmental standards and water and waste management. The panel has also enlisted three study groups to discuss funding sources, local government regulatory powers and compulsory pooling.
The latter subject is an especially touchy one for many fracking opponents, who point out holdout landowners can be forced to ink gas leasing agreements if the bulk of their neighbors have already done so.
Womack said Thursday that the 15-member commission of appointees would likely meet at least once every six weeks. He acknowledged the transition from outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue to Gov.-elect Pat McCrory could spur turnover for some members of the commission.
"We haven't wedded ourselves to those personalities," Womack said.
Womack also made his pitch to lawmakers for more than $500,000 in funding for the commission to cover operating expenses, travel and staff pay.
Next week's meeting of the Mining and Energy Commission is set for 9 a.m. Wednesday in Raleigh's Archdale Building on North Salisbury Street.