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Chatham commissioners could strip Environmental Review Board of its main duties 

Public hearing July 18

A seemingly minor proposal could significantly change the quality of life in Chatham County.

Earlier this month, the Republican-dominated Chatham County Board of Commissioners proposed sweeping changes to the 10-member Environmental Review Board, effectively stripping it of many important duties. As a result, defenders of the ERB say, the environment will suffer, as it did in the early-to-mid-2000s when commissioners approved massive development projects that gobbled thousands of acres.

If the board of commissioners' plan goes through, it would nix the requirement of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) from developers. Before this change, the developers would submit an assessment to the county planning board for review by the ERB. "We often found errors in the [EIAs]," recalls ERB co-chair Elaine Chiosso, also the executive director of the Haw River Assembly, an environmental group.

While the ERB's recommendations weren't legally binding, "a couple of them came back with improvements," Chiosso said.

The commission has also recommended that the ERB be removed from the conditional use permit process. Developers must secure these permits for projects that fall outside the allowable zoning uses for land. Because these cases are unusual, commissioners "may impose such additional conditions and safeguards that the Board may deem as reasonable and appropriate," according to Chatham County zoning regulations.

In the past, this extra step meant that the ERB's recommendations to the board of commissioners had more impact than in the standard zoning process.

Yet Republican commissioners say the ERB is an unnecessary detour in the zoning process. "They don't need to be there," said chairman Brian Bock. "They needed to be there initially, to develop rules and regulations."

He and the other Republican commissioners stressed that even if the ERB were removed from the zoning decisions, it could continue to advise the commissioners.

Now, Bock added, the planning board can oversee the zoning process with a goal of streamlining it and encouraging new development in the rural county.

But defenders of the ERB understand its value and remember why it was created: to more closely scrutinize and rein in runaway development that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the Indy reported last year, county commissioners, spearheaded by Bunkey Morgan, approved several massive development projects totaling more than 10,000 houses. However, many of those homes weren't built when the housing market collapsed. The result was huge swaths of cleared but undeveloped land, as well as pollution in crucial waterways.

Rita Spina, vice president of Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, an activist group that has long fought unbridled development in the county, calls the ERB "one of the best things that could've happened" to Chatham County. The ERB has helped thwart pollution from streams that feed into nearby Jordan Lake, a major source of drinking water in the Triangle.

Chiosso argues that the extra step of including the ERB's review in projects is a small part of the process, and is worth the effort. "The cost of environmental degradation might not be on the business itself," she says, "but on the citizens of the county."

For example, ERB co-chair Allison Weakley recalls a conditional use permit in which a developer wanted to rezone smaller plots for golf courses and wastewater spray fields. However, as the ERB pointed out, the soils were so poor that the plans weren't feasible.

Nonetheless, the ERB has never had the opportunity to flex its muscle. It was established in 2007 under the chairmanship of County Commissioner George Lucier. He and two other Democrats had been voted in as slow-growth candidates, a public reaction against the pro-growth policies of the time.

The newly formed board of commissioners quickly approved a yearlong moratorium on new developments, which was then extended another six months. Since then, Weakley said, few major projects have been undertaken.

Commissioner Sally Kost, a Democrat, agreed. "There hasn't been any major commercial development requested since the ERB was put into place."

The ERB's fate still remains unclear, although the commissioners signaled their intentions after they recently removed the environmental resources director from the county budget.

And due to the county's recently updated regulations on citizen advisory boards, six ERB members will be replaced this year, likely by appointees of the three Republican commissioners.

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