June 22, 2015. An earlier post described changes to state buffer rules proposed in House Bill 760 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2015). Last week, the North Carolina Senate put its own set of buffer changes into House Bill 44 (Local Government Regulatory Reform). The buffer provisions added by the Senate look very different from those approved by the House in H 760.
First, the purpose of riparian buffer rules. In several areas of the state, water quality rules limit clearing, grading and development activity within 50 feet of rivers, lakes and streams. For the most part, the state buffer rules responded to water pollution problems caused by excess nutrients. A number of large fish kills, including a 1995 fish kill in the Neuse River estuary that lasted more than three months and killed tens of millions of fish, prompted nutrient rules for the lower Neuse River and the Tar-Pamlico River basin. The rules required stream buffers to reduce nutrient runoff and also put stricter limits on wastewater discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus. More recently, similar nutrient problems led the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt buffer rules for the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds. State buffer rules also apply to the main stem of the Catawba River and in the Randleman Reservoir watershed to prevent development of nutrient problems. The rules require a 50-foot vegetated buffer — Zone 1 (the first 30 feet back from the water) has undisturbed natural vegetation; Zone 2 can be graded and replanted.
In Section 13 of House Bill 44, the Senate proposes to shrink the riparian buffer required under the Neuse River rules from 50 feet to 30 feet and allow more disturbance within 30 feet of the water. The Senate bill then directs DENR and the Environmental Management Commission to “implement all other rules adopted by the Commission for the protection and maintenance of existing riparian buffers for nutrient sensitive waters” in the same way until the beginning of the 2016 legislative session. The implications:
♦ Stream buffers on waters already stressed by excess nutrients will be significantly narrowed; it isn’t clear whether the narrower buffer will be as effective in reducing polluted runoff.
♦ The Senate provision allows grading, clearing and revegetation of the entire 30-foot buffer.
♦ Changes to the Neuse River buffer rule would be permanent, but changes to buffer rules on other nutrient sensitive waters expire at the beginning of the next legislative session in May 2016. (Although nothing in the bill suggests the Senate actually intends to allow those buffer rules to return to their current form in 2016.)
♦ Whatever happens in 2016, temporarily reducing riparian buffer requirements on nutrient sensitive waters could set off a frenzy of buffer clearing during the one year interim.
♦ Since the provision only applies to buffer rules adopted by the EMC “for nutrient sensitive waters”, buffer rules adopted for Randleman Reservoir and the main stem of the Catawba River would be unchanged.
The Senate and House also differ on the method for measuring riparian buffers on coastal wetlands. The Senate provision (in Section 14 of House Bill 44) requires all coastal wetlands — even those regularly flooded on the tides — to be considered part of the riparian buffer. The change would potentially allow clearing, grading and development activity up to the edge of a regularly flooded coastal wetland. H 760 requires the riparian buffer on a coastal wetland to be measured from the normal water level, likely preventing use of regularly flooded wetlands as the buffer.
The House quickly voted not to accept the Senate changes to House Bill 44; the bill has been sent to a conference committee to work out the differences. The Senate has not yet taken up H 760. Legislative conferees can sometimes color outside the lines, but as things now stand the choice seems to be between: 1. Maintaining existing 50-foot riparian buffer requirements, but exempting a large number of properties from the rules entirely (the House proposal in H 760); or 2. Reducing the riparian buffer from 50 feet to 30 feet on nutrient sensitive waters and allowing grading, clearing and revegetation in the entire buffer (the Senate proposal in H 44).
Note on Goose Creek: Buffer rules for the Goose Creek watershed protect habitat for a federally listed endangered species. The rules, which were negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, require broader buffers than those on nutrient sensitive waters. The Senate buffer provisions in H 44 do not affect the Goose Creek rules. The buffer exemption in H 760 could apply in the Goose Creek watershed, which may undo the negotiated agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.