07/07/06 — State could OK cutting runoff fees temporarily

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State could OK cutting runoff fees temporarily

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 7, 2006 1:51 PM


News-Argus Staff Writer

A state Senate bill that has been approved on its second and third reading would reduce the nitrogen runoff fees along the Neuse River from $57 to its previous $11 per pound per acre, but senators won't make a decision on the issue until at least Monday.

Although the reduction would satisfy local governments and developers who oppose the higher fee, Wayne County officials said their counterparts along the Tar-Pamlico River Basin are still unsatisfied with the bill's content.

The measure, along with a similar bill working its way through the House, is designed to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the river. Too much nitrogen kills aquatic life.

The House bill would reduce the fee to $35 per pound per acre. In May, the bill was sent to the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. If that committee favors the proposed price decrease, the bill would be sent to the House Finance Committee.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Vernon Malone, D-Wake, was going to be considered by the Senate on Thursday, but any decision has been postponed until Monday.

The nitrogen runoff fee, known as the nutrient offset fee program, was established by the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to help the state maintain strict sediment limits. The rules, which were limited to the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico basins, limit the amount of stormwater runoff leaving the site of any new development -- a move designated to protect local waterways from a harmful amount of sediments.

The cap for nitrogen export is 3.6 pounds per acre per year. If a development exceeds that amount, the developer would pay the fee.

During construction at a new development, sediments, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are washed away by rain. That water eventually runs off into local waterways.

When a developer pays the runoff fees, the money is placed into the environmental enhancement program, and the funds are used to construct nutrient controls within a local river basin to achieve the needed nutrient reductions.

Last year, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission decided the $11 rate was not enough to support the nutrient offset program, so the state's governmental operations committee approved the increase to $57 per pound per acre in the Neuse basin in February.

The Senate bill is an attempt to pacify developers, who say the fee is too high. Wayne County Economic Development Commission President Joanna Thompson said the higher fees would slow industrial development in the county.

If the Senate or House bill, or a compromise bill, becomes law, the rates would remain at these prices until the Environmental Review Commission, Division of Water Quality and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources studied the issue and agreed upon an adequate offset price. Also, the three groups would need to consider if the payments should include other nutrients and whether the program should be expanded to other parts of the state. The Environmental Review Commission would present the group's findings, along with any recommended legislation, to the 2007 General Assembly when it convenes.

If the Senate bill becomes law, developers along the Tar and Pamlico rivers would have to pay $45 per tenth of a pound of phosphorus runoff, which could increase developers' costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Phosphorus runoff is more of a problem in those river basins than in the Neuse, where nitrogen is the chief problem, experts say.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith urged county commissioners to contact local legislators and let them know how the higher fees would hurt development in the county.

"This stops jobs. This stops development," Smith said.

He said officials in counties along the Tar and Pamlico are trying to get the phosphorus runoff fees lowered.

"Phosphorus is a big deal at the Tar. This new bill has phosphorus fees staying at $45. That has no affect on us, but it does on them. They've just figured this out," Smith said.