NC - COMMENTARY - It’s time to eliminate the Coastal Resources Commission

The most recent anti-land development drama from Beaufort, NC, indicates the NIMBY machinery is not only cranking on all cylinders, but it’s now changed out the carburetor for a belt-driven supercharger - a state environmental regulatory agency.

The Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) turns 50 years old next year. With all the pomp and celebration, we may also want to take a moment to reflect on the injury it’s caused, and continues to cause, on the economic development of the North Carolina coastal area.

The CAMA is unique in that there is no “Piedmont Area Management Act” or “Mountain Area Management Act,” and the reason is NOT that the acronym “MAMA” would be a public relations disaster for an environmental regulatory agency!

The CAMA was enacted in response to the federal government dangling a giant carrot of money for states to adopt coastal management programs. This, combined with the environmental focus of the late 1960’s, caused the CAMA to be pushed into existence by Raleigh politicians, with much encouragement from the then relatively small, but influential, coastal-based scientific community. Think Jacques Cousteau meets Carl Marx. And then they have a baby.

Adopting the CAMA was far from unanimous, in fact it was highly contentious. Carteret County was dragged into the CAMA kicking and screaming. One county commissioner, a Democrat, albeit a principled Democrat, very vocally resisted the adoption of the CAMA. Even when he was no longer on the county board, I don’t believe Carteret County adopted their own CAMA Land Use Plan until he was dead and gone.

His conviction was that compliance would imply agreement. To acknowledge the CAMA’s legitimacy, threatened our Constitutional freedoms. Compare this to the CAMA regulatory culture, where bringing up Constitutional property rights, in any positive way, garners a collective eye-roll that could capsize a battleship.

Beyond the overall concept, the CAMA has multiple flaws that run against the Constitution. One clear example is that, upon adoption, the CAMA effectively seized thousands of acres of high wetlands that were lawfully owned. There was no compensation offered to the land owners, even though since then, the state has appropriated over a billion dollars to various “environmental” property protection initiatives through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Making this wrong right, has never been a consideration of the State of North Carolina.

Another flaw is that the CAMA created the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), an administrative board, that incorporates legislative, executive, and judicial branches, all in one entity. Apparently, the powers in Raleigh believe any Constitutional separation of powers is just too cumbersome and inefficient.

The present situation involves a NIMBY group prosecuting a scheme to use the Area of Environmental Concern (AEC) designation powers of the CRC to target an ordinary property owner. This owner was planning the “crime” of an otherwise perfectly reasonable land development project. You know, just a regular housing project, where they build homes for people. I’m going to spare the gory details, but an AEC designation equals regulation, and with regulation, comes cancellation.

But you have to ask how much the NIMBY’s are really the one’s responsible, when state law provides the opening, the state agency provides the encouragement, and a the state commission provides the leverage. It’s designed to be hijacked. But hopefully, somewhere, there are people still out there who believe that co-opting a state institution to deny an individual property owner of their lawful property rights, is morally repugnant.

The legislature could stop this state-sponsored covetousness by eliminating the CRC. This would involve codifying the essential elements of the CRC administrative rules into state law. The judicial responsibilities of the CRC, variances and contested case hearings, would be delegated to the Office of Administrative Hearings. Where this isn’t possible, instructions can be provided on how cases can proceed in the courts.

The executive functions that remain will continue to be administered by the Division of Coastal Management (DCM). But now their program elements would be bolstered by state statutes that have been debated in the legislature. The result is increased predictability that would help everyone involved approach the process with more confidence.

Substantial cost savings could also be realized by cutting the CRC support staff. Additional cost savings can be realized by eliminating the CRC meetings every other month; meetings in various places along the coast, that involve many state staff and private citizens.

Considering the original flaws and what it’s become, it’s time to bring the Coastal Resources Commission to an end!

Nelson Paul grew up on Adams Creek, in Craven County. He writes about coastal issues for the Carolina Journal and previously served with the NC Division of Coastal Management as a field consultant.

Read more.