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Friday, September 12, 2014

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow takes a new title

Posted by on Fri, Sep 12, 2014 at 3:55 PM

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow has a new title.

Storrow has been named executive director of the N.C. Aids Action Network, an influential nonprofit that helps to promote advocacy and policy about the disease.

At 22 years old, Storrow was the youngest town councilman in two decades when he was elected in Chapel Hill in 2011. He'll assume leadership of an organization that, like many healthcare advocacy organizations in the state, has fought its fair share of legislative battles in recent years.

Last year, the organization was one of the loudest in the state in decrying Republican lawmakers' $8 million budget cut in assistance for purchasing HIV and AIDS medication. 

Storrow has a history as a healthcare advocate. For the last three years, he's been managing director of the N.C. Alliance for Health, a group promoting healthy living intended to reduce the effects of tobacco and obesity. 

He also worked for Ipas, an international organization promoting women's reproductive rights. He is an Asheville native and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.

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    Storrow takes over as executive director of the N.C. Aids Action Network, nonprofit promoting HIV/AIDS policy and awareness.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Racial profiling trials nears end for Alamance sheriff

Posted by on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 12:24 PM

After several hours of testimony Thursday, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson seemed to finally be getting annoyed.

U.S. Department of Justice attorney Michael Songer questioned Johnson's 30-year career with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation prior to his election as Alamance sheriff, bringing particular attention to his apparently ignominious end as a top coordinator for the SBI's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

As Songer pointed out Thursday, the bureau accused Johnson of filing a false claim, later reporting him to be "insubordinate" and "untruthful" following an investigation. Johnson explained Thursday that the claim stemmed from an incident in which he said American Airlines lost his luggage while on a work trip, forcing him to buy replacement clothing. Johnson said he wrote a letter to the airline using DARE stationary, and the airline mailed him a check later for the clothing he was forced to purchase. According to the sheriff, the airline later claimed it never sent a check.

After he was told not to represent the SBI in any DARE meetings, Johnson drew criticism later from the bureau for attending another DARE meeting. However, the sheriff said he was merely attending the meeting because his wife was the organization's secretary.

It was a confusing end to the sheriff's testimony, which covered his leadership of the Alamance County Sheriff's Office. Johnson denied many of the allegations in the suit, specifically claiming that he did not tell deputies to arrest Latinos rather than cite them for traffic offenses. He said he told deputies to bring in anyone who they could not identify.

DOJ prosecutors are seeking to impose federal oversight of Johnson's office, which is accused of racially profiling Latino residents in an effort to increase deportations.

Prosecutors spent an hour Thursday wrangling over a recording of a conversation Johnson had with a former deputy six years ago. DOJ attorneys said they obtained the tape Aug. 9, well after the conclusion of the trial's discovery period, which is when the prosecution compiles evidence that it must provide to the defense. Owing to the late arrival of the tape, prosecutors were hoping the judge would grant an exception allowing them to play the tape in court, but District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder denied that request.

The prosecution also questioned Johnson about the decision by his office to delete a tape that included an undercover deputy using a racial slur, but the sheriff said that deputy was disciplined for his action.

Both sides are expected to wrap their case Friday, but it's unclear when Judge Schroeder will make a decision.

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    Sheriff Terry Johnson defended his record on the stand Thursday.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Colonial Inn saved, for now

Posted by on Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 12:25 PM

For the moment, Hillsborough's historic Colonial Inn has been saved. 

Members of the town's Historic District Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to reject a request to demolish the decaying structure on King Street. 

The inn's owner, Francis Henry, hasn't spoken to media about his request, but his demolition application to the town indicated he wanted to replace the inn with a grassy lot. 

The downtown Hillsborough structure, built in 1838, has languished in disrepair since he bought the property in 2001. Since then, town officials have sued Henry, accusing him of attempting the demolish the inn by neglect. 

Commission Chair Mark Bell recused himself from a vote Wednesday, citing that he had a prior business relationship with Henry.

Vice Chairwoman Anna Currie said the board denied Henry's application because it was not "congrous" with the town's historic district guidelines, which preserve structures of historic significance. The inn is the only building in Orange County to have been recognized by the state as a landmark of historical significance. 

"It's near and dear to people's hearts," said Currie. "The town would like nothing better than for someone to bring it back to significance."

Last night's meeting attracted droves of preservationists seeking to save the building. Check next week's Indy for a review of what's next for the Colonial Inn.

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    But the future of the historic downtown Hillsborough inn remains in doubt.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DOJ to would-be Meadowmont and Durham frackers: Cease and desist

Posted by on Tue, Jul 29, 2014 at 2:25 PM

It would appear the Pennsylvania company behind a number of bizarre mineral rights leasing offers in Durham and Chapel Hill has gotten on N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper's bad side.

In a sharply worded letter mailed Monday, Cooper's office ordered Crimson Holdings Corporation—and its affiliated real estate firm Campbell Development LLC—to stop offering oil and gas leases in North Carolina. DOJ also demanded the prospective drillers, who sought to buy the mineral rights for nature preserves in Durham and the park at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, reject and return any accepted lease offers from landowners.

"Until you can demonstrate that Campbell's practices and Crimson's leases are in compliance with North Carolina law, we demand that Campbell and Crimson immediately cease and desist from offering or accepting any oil and gas leases in the state of North Carolina," stated the letter from DOJ Special Deputy Attorney M. Lynne Weaver.

As reported in last week's Indy, the Crimson Holdings leasing offers were the first confirmed fracking bids in North Carolina in several years. They were mailed to an unknown number of Durham County landowners two months after state leaders lifted the fracking moratorium.

At least two of those landowners, the conservationist Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association and the Town of Chapel Hill, said they would not make any deals with the company.

According to Weaver's letter, there are numerous legal issues with the company's leasing offers. Neither Crimson nor Campbell are registered with the N.C. Secretary of State to do business. And, as pointed out by the Indy, the company's agent, Frank Sides, is not a registered oil and gas landman in the state.

Meanwhile, the 12-year leases offered by the company exceed the state's 10-year limit and fail to provide a copy of the state law laying out landowner protections. Weaver also complained that DOJ could not find a website for the relatively-unknown company.

"As our office is unable to reasonably locate any information on Crimson Holdings Corporation, we have serious concerns that North Carolina landowners will be unable to conduct any due diligence research or to obtain information on the ostensible company to which they are being asked to lease their oil and gas rights," the letter stated.

James Robinson, a leasing expert with Rural Advancement Foundation International, pointed out the leases would also potentially allow drilling within 300 feet of homes. Draft regulations in the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission require 650-foot setbacks, but allow companies to seek a waiver reducing the setback to 450 feet.

"I don’t want our landowners to see this and say, 'Oh boy, this is my chance to strike it rich,'" said Robinson, who is also a member of a Mining and Energy Commission study group on compulsory pooling. "Because these leases would not hold up in North Carolina."

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    Agency tells Pennsylvania company that they are breaking North Carolina law.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

DENR investigating landman behind Triangle fracking bids

Posted by on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 1:59 PM

Reps for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) say they are investigating the Pennsylvania agent behind a handful of likely doomed offers to buy mineral rights in the Triangle.

As the Indy reported Wednesday, state law requires representatives for gas and oil companies, otherwise known as "landmen," to register with DENR or risk a civil penalty. Frank Sides, the agent named on the mineral rights offers of Crimson Holdings Incorporated, does not appear to be registered in the state, based on DENR's online registry.

DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said his agency was only recently informed of Sides' letters, and will be investigating to determine if he is breaking the law. Sides did not return an Indy phone call this week.

Documents obtained by the Indy this week show Crimson Holdings made offers to buy mineral rights in Durham and Chapel Hill. In Durham, the company sought to buy the rights for several tracts of nature preserves owned by the conservationist Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. In Chapel Hill, Crimson Holdings offered to buy more than 50 acres of land owned by the town of Chapel Hill in a park abutting the upscale Meadowmont development.

Landowners say they have turned down the offers from Crimson Holdings. Still, it's the first confirmed reports of gas leasing offers made in the state in several years, and it comes weeks after state leaders lifted the fracking moratorium. More on this as it develops.

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    Pennsylvania rep for a prospective driller could be breaking the law.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Driller apparently wants to frack Meadowmont in Chapel Hill

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 2:58 PM

It appears the relatively unknown Crimson Holdings Corporation wants to frack more than a handful of nature preserves in Durham, as reported in today's Indy.

Documents obtained by the Indy Wednesday show the company, which appears to be a small operation in Pittsburgh, made a similar request for mineral rights to the Chapel Hill Town Council last week. Their target? Roughly 51 acres of town-owned park land abutting Meadowmont, an upscale development on the border between Durham and Orange counties.

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison said the Meadowmont land is the largest town-owned tract in Durham County. The response from Chapel Hill appears to be bemusement.

In an email to Town Council members last week, Town Manager Roger Stancil wrote that he did not plan to take any action on the Crimson Holdings request following a meeting with the town's attorney.

In the letter, Crimson Holdings offered the town a fairly low leasing bonus of $5 per acre. As reported today, landowners in states with more of a known quantity of gas can command bonuses in the area of tens of thousands of dollars per acre.

It's the third confirmed gas leasing correspondence between Crimson Holdings and local landowners. Last week, leaders of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, a conservationist group in Durham, declined the company's requests for mineral rights on several tracts. Another Durham County resident near Falls Lake also confirmed that they received a mineral rights leasing request from Crimson Holdings.

According to James Robinson, a leasing expert with Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), it's the first confirmed leasing activity in North Carolina in several years. It comes about two months after state leaders lifted North Carolina's fracking moratorium.

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    But don't expect Chapel Hill Town Council to go along.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fracking company makes offers in Durham

Posted by on Tue, Jul 22, 2014 at 1:14 PM

Almost two months after fracking was legalized in North Carolina, a Pennsylvania company is offering to buy mineral rights from landowners in Durham. And since the company’s agent has not registered with state officials, he could be breaking the law.

Leaders of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, a conservationist nonprofit in Durham, say they recently have received offers from Crimson Holdings Corporation, a company based in Pittsburgh, seeking to buy mineral rights on multiple tracts. The association owns 340 acres and four public nature preserves in Durham.

Crimson Holdings has also approached at least one other landowner near Falls Lake in northeast Durham County, according to documents obtained by the INDY.

The offers are signed by Frank Sides, a Pennsylvania-based agent who, as of Tuesday, was not a registered “landman,” or a representative for oil and gas interests, in North Carolina. State law requires landmen to register with DENR or they may face a civil penalty. Sides did not return a phone call from the INDY.

James Robinson, a research associate and gas leasing expert with Rural Advancement Foundation International, says the Crimson Holdings offers are the first he’s seen in North Carolina since a drilling company began signing leases about four years ago in Lee County, a suburban county south of the Triangle where geologists expect the state’s drilling to be centralized.

In June, Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation lifting North Carolina’s moratorium on fracking. Drilling is expected to begin sometime next spring.

Chris Dreps, executive director of the watershed association, says the Crimson Holdings offers seemed like the company was “fishing” for interested parties. In response, the association’s board of directors approved a policy last week forbidding the sale of mineral rights on their property, which is mostly found within Durham city limits along Ellerbe Creek.

“It doesn’t make sense for an organization that’s protecting our land for conservation purposes to sell our mineral rights,” said Dreps. “It’s a bit of a distraction from our mission, which is to keep Ellerbe Creek clean.”

While Durham technically falls within the state’s potential drilling area—the Triassic Basin— its dense population will likely complicate efforts to frack due to state-mandated setbacks from homes and schools, experts say. State law bars local governments from imposing drilling bans within their borders.

Both lease offers in Durham include few details about Crimson Holdings, other than saying the group is seeking to “explore the natural resources” in the area. The letters offer a paltry $5 per acre leasing bonus, coupled with a 12.5 percent royalty rate, the minimum royalty required by North Carolina law.

Signing bonuses can soar as high as tens of thousands of dollars per acre in areas of the country where plentiful gas stores are confirmed, Robinson said, but details about North Carolina’s supply are too murky to fetch much higher offers.

The company gives landowners a signing deadline of Nov. 1 or until the funds slotted for the project run out.

Robinson urged landowners to be cautious and patient, pointing out they may have greater negotiating leverage once the state has more information about shale gas reserves.

“Any landowner being told you have to sign right now or you’re going to miss your opportunity is not being given accurate information,” he said. “They need to take that lease to an attorney and talk about it with family members. That type of pressure is a tactic that companies use to make landowners feel like they’re running out of time.”

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for N.C., said landowners should also be wary of unregistered landmen such as Sides. The state registry was one of several items her group, an environmentalist nonprofit that opposes fracking, successfully pushed to save last year in the N.C. General Assembly.

The registry was intended to discourage predatory drilling operations in North Carolina. “We have a lot of concerns about someone who has not even taken the time to register in North Carolina making these kinds of approaches,” Taylor said.

Taylor added that, while it’s surprising for a company to be making lease offers in Durham, it’s important for Triangle residents to be prepared should gas companies contact them. “If anything, it says they’re pretty bold if they think it’s ok to reach out to land conservation groups,” Taylor said. “Do they not think there’s opposition down here?”

The state’s Mining and Energy Commission, which has created a draft of fracking regulations, will hold public hearings on the rules next month. The first scheduled hearing is set for Aug. 20 at N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center in Raleigh.

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    Leasing offers come roughly two months after state lifts drilling moratorium.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lawmakers readying vote on coal ash cleanup

Posted by on Tue, Jul 1, 2014 at 2:21 PM

With the N.C. General Assembly poised to approve coal ash cleanup legislation as soon as this week, questions about who pays for the cleanup continued to dog lawmakers during Tuesday’s session of the House Environment Committee.

Democrats on the panel, which was debating Senate Bill 729, called for legislators to mandate that Duke Energy be forced to pay the estimated $10 billion bill for the work, but were rebuffed by Republican bill sponsors who said it was too soon to decide who pays.

“We’re the first state in the nation to do this and we’re trying to do it as responsibly as possible,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Mecklenburg County Republican who co-sponsors the House version of the legislation.

GOP lawmakers suggested that the question could be left to the N.C. Utilities Commission once Duke tallies up the cost. As the Indy has reported in the past, many critics question whether a utilities commission well-stocked with former utility workers would make a fair assessment.

Included in the bill is a mandate that the energy giant close at least four “high-risk” coal ash sites—including the Eden site that spilled 35,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February—by August 2019. Sites designated as “intermediate” and “low” risk would be closed by 2024 and 2029, respectively.

A nine-member Coal Ash Management Commission, appointed by the House, Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory, would determine the priority for coal ash sites and review cleanup plans.

Bob Stephens, general counsel for the governor, warned legislators that the coal ash commission was an overreach of the legislative branch, arguing the group—because it would review and approve cleanup plans—would be performing the executive branch function of “carrying out the law.” Legislators disagreed. Expect more jostling for power.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates who spoke Tuesday alternately praised the bill for taking steps to rid the state of coal ash, but complained it was not stringent enough because it allows many sites to continue operation after 2019.

According to Donna Lisenby of the N.C. Waterkeeper Alliance, there is no such thing as a “low-risk” coal ash site.

“A colleague of mine called this bill the ‘tallest midget at the circus,’” said Lisenby. “We are relying on the House of Representatives to increase the stature of this bill.”

Committee lawmakers were expected to consider a proposed rewrite of the legislation immediately following this afternoon’s House and Senate sessions.

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    GOP legislators rebuff calls to block any Duke Energy attempt to pass costs onto customers.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

State awards contract for high-occupancy toll lanes in Charlotte

Posted by on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 1:15 PM

Last year, the Indy reported that North Carolina transportation leaders were moving on a controversial plan to construct high-occupancy toll lanes, better known as HOT lanes, for a congested portion of I-77 north of Charlotte. On Thursday, the N.C. Department of Transportation finalized that deal, signing off on a contract with Spanish-based transit company Cintra.

DOT agreed to a public-private partnership with the group to build and operate HOT lanes on about 26 miles of I-77 stretching from uptown Charlotte to the Lake Norman area. That stretch of roadway is known to be one of the most congested areas in the state.

HOT lanes allow drivers to choose whether they want to pay a toll to travel a guaranteed speed of 45 mph. The private company will set the toll rates, which fluctuate up or down depending on traffic. With the cash-strapped state facing about $45 billion in needed highway improvements between 2015 and 2020, both supporters and opponents say HOT lanes could be the future of congestion relief across the state, including in the Triangle.

“This project provides an innovative and comprehensive solution to existing and future congestion in this corridor,” said NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata in a statement. “Utilizing the public-private partnership concept is allowing us to improve nearly 26 miles of I-77 in just a few years, not in decades. This expansion will provide an option for reliable travel time while addressing long-term mobility concerns.”

The state will spend about $88 million on the project, with Cintra paying the remaining $655 million in exchange for toll revenues. Officials say the project will be complete within four years. N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Charlotte, was a major proponent.

Opponents, however, note HOT lanes have done little to ease congestion when implemented in other states such as Georgia. Citizen groups such as Widen I-77 have called for leaders to instead increase the number of general purpose lanes on the busy highway.

On Thursday, those HOT lane critics reaffirmed their opposition. “This project has been characterized by inconsistency, misrepresentation and a disregard for the taxpayer’s money,” said Widen I-77 spokesman Kurt Naas.

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    Both critics and supporters say this may be the future for commuters in the Triangle.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Orange County commissioners to consider tax increase tonight

Posted by on Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 2:31 PM

Guard your pocketbooks. One of the Triangle's most expensive places to live may soon be a little more expensive.

Orange County commissioners are expected to vote tonight on a $200.4 million budget that includes a 2-cent property tax increase. Officials say the cash is needed to pay for the needs of the county's two school systems, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools. The plan would spend roughly $97 million on the two systems.

Chapel Hill leaders have already approved a one-cent tax increase. Tonight's meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.

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    Proposed budget would raise property taxes by 2 cents.

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