Originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald
Though the official name of the county in which I reside remains Chatham, the defacto moniker it has earned by the actions of our board of commissioners (BOC) and their supporters is Facto Phobia. This is now, quite literally, a province governed by those who fear knowledge.
A perfect case in point is the recent exclusion of the Environmental Review Board (ERB) from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Conditional Use Permitting (CUP) processes by the county planning board.
First, a little background on the ERB. The ERB is comprised of local experts with training in sciences like biology, forestry, wildlife management, watershed administration, development practices and a wide range of other disciplines. They have no legislative or administrative authority. They are unpaid volunteers who act only in an advisory capacity. I know several of them personally, and I can testify that these are not pointy-headed, ivory tower academics disconnected from the real world. They are people who have earned their degrees by getting their hands dirty, learning in the field and then applying practical knowledge to the problems of planning and development. The depth and breadth of their experience and knowledge cannot be found among the staff of county government. And did I mention that their services are free?
They have contributed hundreds of hours of service to the county and have increased protections of some our most vulnerable watersheds and landscapes. The ERB has given informed advice on subjects like the Jordan Lake nutrient rules, sewage sludge application on Chatham farmlands, and the watershed protection ordinace to name a few.
I serve on the county planning board, and at our last meeting you’d have thought that the ERB was an all-powerful dictator whose sole purpose was to stop any kind of development in the county. The planning board members appointed by Commissioners Bock, Petty and Stewart voted to bar the ERB from reviewing the above mentioned matters. My question to them was, if someone has the knowledge to keep you from stepping on a landmine wouldn’t you want that person guiding you through a minefield?They apparently do not.
All developments are different. Each has its own peculiar and unique set of challenges. Developers and county staff do not necessarily have the expertise or time to look at a project and see the costly mistakes that can be made; mistakes that will hurt a development, cost the developer more money, or damage the irreplaceable natural resources upon which we all depend.
During the discussion about the ERB’s advisory duties concerning the EIA and CUP processes, planning board members Mike Grigg, Karl Ernst, Phillip Bienvenue and Kathryn Butler argued againts the ERB’s further participation. But their arguments were not based on any substantive grounds. Mr. Grigg was afraid that the ERB would run to the media with any findings they might make. Ms. Butler admitted her ignorance about environmental damage caused in the last ten years because of a lack of oversite. Butler said she didn’t know any of the ERB members but was operating under a “perception” that the ERB was too “stringent” in there reviews.
In fact, the ERB was founded precisely because there has been widescale damage done to our watershed and the state was doing little to nothing about it. Much of the county’s watershed is on the state’s list of impaired waters.
Mr. Ernst claimed there was an “agenda…” “in some of these groups,” ostensibly referring to the ERB. No further substantiation was forthcoming. Mr. Bienvenue said that it was his opinion that since the ERB was “staffed by scientific people” that they didn’t represent “the voice of the county”, and that since they were “scientists” average citizens would hesitate to “challenge” them. Finally, planning board parliamentarian, Tom Glendinning, who has no standing to participate in the discussion, accused an unnamed ERB member “of acting on the very edge of inappropriateness and double dealing, and I’d say conflict of interest” in some matter in which the ERB alledgedly had some involvement. When I pressed him for details, he refused to elaborate. That is a serious allegation—without a single shred of evidence.
These objections betray the naked prejudice of each of these members against the purpose of the ERB. This is judgment by innuendo, rumor and hearsay.
But the bitter truth about facto phobic Commissioners Bock, Petty and Stewart is that not only do they not know the many ways our rivers and lands can be permanently damaged, they don’t want to know; and they don’t want you to know either. This is the legislative enforcement of ignorance. This is the kind of policy making that leads to the irreparable damage of water resources, landscapes and the public health.
Welcome to Facto Phobia.