Leaders in Union County and across North Carolina may soon be told to stop demanding certain aesthetic standards for proposed projects in their towns, while residents may lose a tool in fighting unwanted developments.
The state’s regulatory reform bill has passed the North Carolina House of Representatives and is back in a committee of the North Carolina Senate. The Senate passed the first version of the bill, but so much was changed in the House that senators must now discuss the bill again before voting.
Among the many provisions in the document are stipulations that towns could no longer control aesthetics such as the color of a building or what kind of siding a development uses – issues state legislators say towns never actually had the legal authority to control but that come up in many rezoning discussions – and a removal of the protest petition – which requires municipality boards and councils to reach a super majority to approve protested development rezonings, instead of a simple majority, which makes it easier for critics to have an issue voted down.
Those portions of the bill and many others in the plan are aimed toward making life easier for businesses, and reigning in some municipalities that have allegedly overreached in controlling development, legislators supporting the bill have said while falling short of pointing fingers at specific towns. But as the short session has raced toward its close, so much has been added or changed in the bill that many legislators aren’t sure what’s left in the document – or if it will make it to a final vote this year.
“The problem with omnibus bills (is) there’s a lot of the bill that everybody will like, and things you won’t like,” Sen. Jeff Tarte said in regard to bills that cover a number of different issues, such as this regulatory reform document. Tarte, a Mecklenburg County senator, has been asked to join a coalition of border towns that will include western Union County.
One of the issues Tarte said gave him pause was the possible elimination of protest petitions, which Tarte said currently allows for a single individual to stall development. Tarte would be in favor of trying to “improve (the protest petition law) without trying to radicalize it,” he said. “(There may be) two or three things that make (the bill) so onerous that you can’t support the overall.”
Tarte said the bill may be pushed to next year’s long session, which would allow legislators to “fine tune” the document and spend more time in debate. He currently isn’t sure how he would vote on the bill because he isn’t sure what’s actually in it after it left the House. But he touted what he feels as the positives of the bill in an email to constituents on Monday, July 7.
The regulatory reform bill would, among other things, end a “century-old ban on cursing on the highway,” according to Tarte’s email, as well as addressing other issues.
“This bill streamlines the environmental permitting process and makes it easier for citizens and businesses to conduct business,” Tarte wrote. “It removes many ambiguous, onerous and obsolete regulations that increase the expense and does little to serve the public interest, North Carolina families or job-creating businesses.”
What the bill doesn’t do, some local leaders have said, is protect the interests of towns. In addition to the protest petition language and aesthetic standards issue, the document previously included a section that would eliminate a town’s ability to require developers to save a certain amount of trees on their property that is no longer in the bill. That could change depending on final debate in Raleigh.
The regulatory reform bill was not scheduled for further debate as of Wednesday morning, July 9. Legislators also are still discussing the state’s fiscal budget and options for providing pay increases for North Carolina teachers, which should be settled in the next few days.
The teacher pay issue has caused a division between leaders in the House and Senate, as legislators look to increase teacher pay across the state to avoid seeing educators leave North Carolina for states such as South Carolina, which on average pay more.
Also involved in the funding debate is driver’s education funding. Many program and school officials are urging the General Assembly to adopt the House and Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal to retain most of driver education funding, as the Senate’s budget could move the funding from the state’s Highway Trust Fund to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction budget. The Senate budget could cut yellow bus funding by 6 percent, or $28 million, and calls for a transfer of $26 million from the Highway Fund — which pays for driver’s education courses across the state — to the NCDPI to cover the discrepancy, meaning the NCDPI may ultimately have to decide between funding school busing and driver education.
Susan Harrison, the driver’s education representative at the legislature, believes the NCDPI, and young drivers, will be left in a tenuous position if the General Assembly carries out the Senate’s proposal. She quoted a Texas study that suggested parent-taught drivers are three times more likely to get into a crash than drivers with commercial driver education.
The House budget proposal would keep driver’s education funding in the Highway Trust Fund, but makes adjustments for ninth-grade enrollment, a decrease of about $300,000, which most driver’s education leaders are hoping will pass.
All that may change as discussions continue and the House and Senate work to come to terms on a negotiated budget.
Courtney Schultz contributed to this story.