The Disappearance of the Coastal Resources Commission

September 25, 2013.   Under the state’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA), the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) has responsibility for developing standards needed to balance protection of highly productive  coastal resources, public trust rights, and  economic development.  But  the N.C. Coastal Federation’s Coastal Review Online  reports that  the CRC  has been effectively out of commission since the beginning of August. The question is why.

This year,  the General Assembly  changed the makeup of the  Coastal Resources Commission by  reducing the number of commissioners from 15 to 13;  revising  the categories for appointment; and  giving  legislative leadership the  power  to appoint 4 of the 13 members. (See Sec. 14.24  of Senate Bill 402.) To  make the changes  effective more quickly, the  bill  caused the terms of  all  Coastal Resources Commission members serving on January 1, 2013 to  expire on  July 31, 2013 with four exceptions. Those four seats, specifically identified in the bill, have terms expiring on June 30, 2014. The bill required  the Governor to appoint nine new CRC members by August 1, 2013 to replace the nine whose  terms would end on July 31, 2013.

The problem is that  new appointments have not been made and the CRC webpage now lists only four members  — the four whose terms extend until June 30, 2014.  Those four members alone  participated in a special called meeting of the commission  in August to make a decision  related to litigation over an earlier CRC  variance decision. The regular September  meeting of the CRC scheduled for this week has been canceled.

The reason for the sudden loss of two-thirds of the commissioners  is unclear.  Both the N.C. Constitution and state law  expressly say that state officials can and should serve  until their successor has been appointed or elected.

N.C. Constitution, Article VI, Sec. 10: “In the absence of any contrary provision, all officers in this State, whether appointed or elected, shall hold their positions until other appointments are made or, if the offices are elective, until their successors are chosen and qualified.”

N.C.G.S. § 128-7: “All officers shall continue in their respective offices until their successors are elected or appointed, and duly qualified.”

The term “officers” covers all elected and appointed state officials, including members of boards and commissions. The provisions exist to guarantee that essential government functions continue even as terms of office end.   N.C. judges  have applied  the provisions to find that decisions made by state officials  beyond the end of their appointed term are valid  and enforceable since  those officials legitimately continue in  office until a  successor takes over.

The CRC’s responsibilities go beyond  rule adoption. CAMA also gives the CRC power to grant variances from  coastal development  standards,  issue declaratory rulings (interpreting how  coastal development rules  apply to a particular project), and approve local land use plans in the coastal counties. Those decisions are often time sensitive and important to developers as well as local governments,  community groups and environmental organizations. Right now, the CRC cannot meet those obligations with a membership of four.   Four commissioners may not even  meet CRC quorum requirements unless the remaining nine members resigned or have been individually removed from office. (Neither seems to be the case.)  The remaining four commissioners also cannot represent the broad range of interests and expertise needed to make balanced decisions about protection of the state’s coastal resources.