As expected, county commissioners in Lee County—the presumably gas-rich, suburban county south of the Triangle—have taken a public stance opposing natural gas drilling, better known as fracking.
Lee County, which includes the county seat of Sanford, is expected to be one of the focal points of natural gas drilling in North Carolina in the coming years. But local leaders' resolution last week, approved by a new majority of Democrats, say the state's laws and the draft regulations proposed by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission "do not adequately protect our environment, our county, or our state."
The resolution goes on to state that state law and the commission's rules "remove all local authority with respect to the extraction of natural gas and fail to provide local governments with compensation, either direct or indirect, for the impact of the extraction on local economies and infrastructure."
The vote rescinds an earlier resolution of support approved by a Republican majority in 2012. Among that majority was former Commissioner Jim Womack, who also served as chairman of the state Mining and Energy Commission. Womack, who was featured in a Feb. 2013 cover story in the Indy, chose not to run for re-election to the county board last year.
State leaders are expected to vote on the commission's regulations this year. Despite the fact that state laws expressly forbid local government bans on drilling, Clean Water for N.C. Executive Director Hope Taylor, whose nonprofit opposes fracking, said last week's move is "far more than a symbolic gesture."
"This is the county with potentially the most accessible natural gas, saying, 'It's just not worth it,'" said Taylor. "The change in perception in Lee County has been remarkable to behold."
Political winds change.
Case in point: Lee County, the suburban county south of the Triangle that is expected to be the focal point of natural gas drilling in North Carolina.
Democrats seized control of the local Board of Commissioners last November and are now expected to pass a resolution next week opposing fracking and the drilling regulations lobbed by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. Interestingly, that appointed commission was once chaired by former Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, an outspoken conservative who supports fracking.
In Feb. 2013, the Indy reported on Womack's use of an anonymous blog to attack his local political enemies.
In the case of local politics, it can be difficult to assess what issue causes local government turnover, but it seems likely that the county's long-lagging economy and a groundswell of public opposition to drilling helped Democrats seize power. Thus, next week's motion.
The meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday in Sanford.
Federal leaders on Tuesday rolled out a five-year draft plan for offshore oil and gas leasing in the U.S. As expected, North Carolina is included.
The draft, announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, includes 14 potential lease sales: 10 in the Gulf of Mexico, three off the coast of Alaska, and one in a portion of the Mid- and South Atlantic.
“The safe and responsible development of our nation’s domestic energy resources is a key part of the president’s efforts to support American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
The Atlantic lease area includes sites in offshore North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
“At this early stage in considering a lease sale in the Atlantic, we are looking to build up our understanding of resource potential, as well as risks to the environment and other uses,” said Jewell.
It would come with a 50-mile coastal buffer, the department said, to minimize conflicts with the Department of Defense, NASA, renewable energy work, commercial and recreational fishing and natural habitats.
From environmental groups, the criticism began quickly. Nonprofit Environment N.C. said the plan would put North Carolina's "natural heritage at risk," citing 2010's disastrous BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which gushed an estimated 210 million gallons into the water.
“As someone who experienced the BP oil spill firsthand, I’ve seen the damages that offshore drilling can bring to the coast from tar balls washing up onto beaches to pelicans and dolphins covered in oil,” said Liz Kazal, field associate with Environment N.C. “The prudent action to take is to keep North Carolina out of the plan for good.”
The federal agencies are requesting public comment as they consider the draft plans, which includes an environmental impact study. For more information, go here.
Thanks to a change in town guidelines, obtaining permission to install some solar panels in Hillsborough could now take about three days and $10, town officials say.
Members of the town's Historic District Commission approved a change classifying solar panel installations as "minor work" if they cannot be seen from the street. The revision allows town staff to review and approve the applications, rather than requiring approval from the commission.
Commission approval could take one to two months to complete. Town staff can do it in about three days, along with a $10 fee.
“It is perfectly in keeping with the need to preserve the character of the Historic District while promoting alternative energy in the age of climate change,” said Hillsborough Town Commissioner Jenn Weaver in a release. “Streamlining the solar panel approval process is a way the town can support alternative energy, and I’m so grateful to our staff and HDC volunteers for having the wisdom to come up with this solution.”
Town leaders said the change followed more than two dozen requests to install solar panels in the town after last year's Solarize Hillsborough program, a local campaign aimed at incentivizing solar panels by offering group discounts on installations.
A $15 million downtown Carrboro development with tremendous implications for the town received a predictably mixed reaction during a public hearing Tuesday night in packed Carrboro Town Hall.
Some locals offered concerns about the financial risks of the proposed Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center, a four-story, 55,000-square-foot structure at East Main and Roberson streets which would house Carrboro's long-running ArtsCenter and Kidzu Children's Museum, currently located in Chapel Hill.
Others, such as former Carrboro mayors Mark Chilton and Ellie Kinnaird, urged town leaders not to miss this chance. Supporters said the facility would have an estimated $320 million economic impact over 25 years.
"This is such a great opportunity," said Betsy Bennett, co-chairwoman of the Kidzu board of directors.
Tuesday's hearing drew so much public interest that town leaders said they would continue the hearing on Feb. 3.
The Arts and Innovation Center was initially estimated to cost $12.1 million, with $4.6 million in funding requested from the town. But project backers presented different numbers Tuesday night, announcing they needed $15 million, evenly split between public and private sources, to make the project happen.
Supporters said the building—which would serve as a performing arts space as well as the children's museum—would be a major boon for Carrboro and its businesses, a sentiment shared by many who spoke Tuesday.
"I couldn't be more excited," said Betsy Bertram, manager of Townsend Bertram & Co., an outdoor outfitter located in Carrboro's Carr Mill Mall. "I couldn't think of anything better for Carrboro's future."
Wendy Smith, co-owner of Cameron's Gift Shop in the neighboring 300 E. Main St. development, said she expects performances at the center would increase foot traffic at local businesses.
However, others echoed the concerns of some members of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, questioning whether the small Orange County municipality should be asked to help finance the center and take on its risks. The nonprofit ArtsCenter, which serves as a performing arts space and works in local schools to support arts education, has been troubled by budget shortfalls in the last decade.
"We need to proceed with caution," said Brad Bonneville, a downtown Carrboro resident and owner of Bonneville Electric on Maple Avenue. "This is a risky venture and it could be dangerous for Carrboro."
Others said the town should invest the funds in infrastructure needs, citing frequent flooding and drainage concerns in some Carrboro neighborhoods.
Nathan Milian, manager of Carr Mill Mall, said the town should first determine where the center's patrons would park.
"The town should not rush to judgment," Milian said.
A building proposal with dramatic implications for downtown Carrboro goes before the Board of Aldermen tonight.
As reported in last week's Indy, town officials will hold a public hearing to consider partnering with The ArtsCenter and Kidzu Children's Museum to build a four-story, 55,000-square-foot home for the nonprofits at the corner of East Main and Roberson streets.
The proposal, which has received an icy reception from town leaders thus far, calls for the town to put $4.5 million into the $12.1 million center, with the nonprofits responsible for generating the remaining $7.6 million.
Backers of The ArtsCenter and Kidzu say the new center would generate millions in revenues for surrounding Carrboro business owners. But some critics say the nonprofits are asking the town to take on an enormous risk in supporting the development. The site currently includes town-leased public parking.
Tonight's hearing is slated for 7:30 p.m. at Carrboro Town Hall on West Main Street. If you cannot attend, it will be broadcast on television on Gov-TV and through the Town of Carrboro's website here.
Even as North Carolina lawmakers reportedly consider a proposal shifting control of the state's Medicaid spending to an independent panel of political appointees, North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos is calling for a different model.
Wos asked legislators, who reconvened this week, to consider accountable care organizations, or ACOs, a model included in President Obama's Affordable Care Act by which networks of health care providers agree to a budget for providing care.
It's one method being considered as North Carolina grapples with often unpredictable spending on Medicaid, a joint state and federal program assisting low-income residents with medical bills.
At a forum this week, Wos—an appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory—said ACOs ensure that doctors and hospitals, by agreeing to partner on a Medicaid budget, share the fiscal burden with the state, according to a Department of Health and Human Services release.
"We all know we have to watch the money. We have to be true not only to the citizens that we take care of and we serve in our population, we have to be true to the taxpayers that are paying for this," said Wos. "And the only way we can do that [is] if we have an ability to honestly, ourselves, manage the cost."
House and Senate Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly could not agree on ACOs last year, although they are expected to weigh multiple methods for Medicaid reform in 2015.
For 40 years, Carrboro's ArtsCenter has been a hub for performing arts and arts education in Orange County. Over the next two weeks, they may have to prove they’ll be around for another 40 to land an unprecedented deal with the town for a new downtown home.
On Jan. 20, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen will hold a public hearing to consider partnering with the ArtsCenter and Chapel Hill children’s museum Kidzu for a new $12.1 million center. Additional informational meetings are scheduled for tonight and Wednesday.
Under the proposal, Carrboro would fund more than a third of the cost—$4.5 million—for a 55,000-square-foot building tentatively called the Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center at East Main and Roberson streets. The nonprofits would be responsible for the remaining $7.6 million.
The decision has major implications for both the town and these local nonprofits. Carrboro's share of the cost, which would presumably be drawn from new revenue sources, amounts to more than 20 percent of its annual operating budget.
If state lawmakers would allow the town to collect 100 percent of local hotel occupancy taxes, Carrboro would have more than enough funding to pay for the new center, according to representatives of Kidzu and the ArtsCenter.
"Not one citizen of Carrboro would see their property taxes go up," says Pam Wall, executive director of Kidzu, an interactive children's museum that opened in 2006 in Chapel Hill.
Construction on the four-story building would begin in summer 2016 and finish in late 2017. The land, which is owned by local real estate investors Main Street Properties of Chapel Hill LLC, includes a town-leased public parking lot today. Under the nonprofits’ proposal, Main Street Properties would donate the land to Carrboro and the town would lease the structure to the arts groups.
Main Street Properties also owns the site of the current ArtsCenter at 300 E. Main Street, which would be replaced by a new hotel, ArtsCenter leaders said, although the town has yet to receive any application to build a hotel on the property. If built, it would be the second new hotel on the block. A Hampton Inn opened next to the ArtsCenter in 2013.
The extra space is necessary, the nonprofits say. The ArtsCenter, which includes art studios and performing arts space, is "busting at the seams,” says Jay Miller, chairman of the ArtsCenter board of directors.
Kidzu is opening a new space next month in University Mall in Chapel Hill but Wall said the group is prepared to move permanently into the proposed new building in Carrboro if it is approved.
But first, the nonprofits will need the support of the Board of Aldermen. This week, that seemed unlikely.
Many town officials are questioning the use of public funds on the project. They're also skeptical that Carrboro leaders can convince state lawmakers to reconsider the local hotel occupancy tax allotment.
"It doesn't fit into what we see as our role," said Alderman Damon Seils. "It hasn't much felt like a partnership."
Alderwoman Bethany Chaney said the nonprofits are asking the town to finance a "high-risk plan" with little assurance that the new center is financially sustainable, pointing out that the ArtsCenter has struggled with its finances in recent years. The tax-exempt nonprofit has reported budget shortfalls in recent years.
Chaney said the nonprofits must prove that such a partnership would include substantial benefits for the town in order to justify the risk.
"This doesn't feel like partnership," said Chaney. "It feels like manipulation.”
Renderings for the building, prepared by Philip Szostak, a Chapel Hill architect and a member of the ArtsCenter board, show a four-story, glass-paneled building similar in design to the Durham Performing Arts Center, which Szostak's company also designed. However, Carrboro's center would be less than half the size of DPAC. It would also cost less than a third of the price for DPAC, which was funded through public and private sources.
More in this week's Indy.
At least one North Carolina prison official who lost his job following the death of inmate Michael Anthony Kerr has a new position in the Department of Public Safety.
DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker confirmed this week that John Monguillot, the former assistant director of mental health in the prison system's western region, received a demotion after Kerr's death. He is now the psychological services coordinator at Marion Correctional Institution in western North Carolina, where he oversees mental health services at the facility.
As a result, Monguillot's annual salary dropped from $93,786 to just under $80,000. Walker did not offer any additional comment on Monguillot's demotion.
The Indy reported in April that Kerr died during a transfer to Central Prison in Raleigh after spending more than a month in solitary confinement at a prison in Taylorsville.
An inmate staying in a neighboring cell told the Indy that Kerr—who had a history of mental illness—had been left without food or water for days, covered in his own feces. An autopsy report in September confirmed that Kerr's cause of death was dehydration.
Following the report, DPS announced the dismissal of nine workers, including Monguillot, as well as two resignations. Another 20 to 30 workers were reassigned or disciplined. Kerr's death and the Indy report prompted investigations from the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and a federal grand jury, as well as the nonprofit Disability Rights N.C., which reported "severe deficiencies" in the prison's care for Kerr.
Prison officials also announced several reforms, including the creation of a task force to recommend policy changes, consultation with outside experts and individual mental health reviews of inmates before placing them in solitary confinement. Mental health experts have long said that the use of isolation on mentally ill prisoners may only exacerbate illness.
It may not matter much in the end, but Chatham County commissioners have unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Duke Energy's plans to dump 3 million tons of potentially toxic coal ash in abandoned brick mines in Moncure and Sanford.
Board members called on state lawmakers to act to suspend the energy giant's proposal to dump in Chatham and Lee counties, which could be cleared as soon as early 2015.
However, as reported in the Indy last month, this year's Coal Ash Management Act leaves local government authorities virtually no decision-making power in the plan. State law allows the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to grant the necessary permits to Duke. Also, the law specifically forbids local government ordinances intended to block coal ash dumping.
Both Chatham and Lee leaders have said they plan to fight the company's proposal, with Lee County Manager John Crumpton not ruling out legal action in the process.
Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Crawford said the two counties south of the Triangle are "being asked to assume a disproportionate risk in this current plan."
"The N.C. General Assembly, in its haste to prod Duke Energy to action, effectively stripped local authorities of any power to safeguard the health of our citizens," said Crawford. "Neither can we collect fees to offset costs imposed on local governments. This is politically and economically unfair."
The Indy reported last week that the plan could absolve Duke of any legal liability for environmental impacts stemming from the dumping, likely passing on the cost to the owner of the brick mines, a relatively unknown corporation named Green Meadow LLC. If Green Meadow can't pay the cost of environmental damage, legal experts said the liability could fall on the state and local governments.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Jabon told the Indy that its proposal is part of a "comprehensive" plan to safely dispose of the coal byproduct, which contains carcinogens such as arsenic.
"We feel a responsibility for the safe and permanent storage of the coal ash, which is why we've partnered with experienced vendors," said Jabon.