Environmentalists persuade commissioners to keep stream protections

Environmentalists, indeed all Chatham citizens, won a surprising victory Monday night when the conservative majority on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners reversed  a 3-2 vote to gut ephemeral stream protections in the county’s watershed protection ordinance. The dramatic reversal came about after all of the local citizens who testified on the proposal, including me — all arguing forcefully against changing the regulations — had left the public hearing room in mass once the majority voted the first time to gut the stream protections. Commissioners had heard testimony from 14 individuals, including six conservation  organizations. When a member of the County’s own Environmental Review Board reported that they also opposed the Commissioners actions, and conservative Commissioner Walter Petty agreed with Commissioner Sally Kost, who had been fighting all along to keep the regulations in place, the board invited the crowd back into the room.  Commissioners then voted 5-0 on a compromise resolution that kept most of the protections in place. I was one of the 14 who spoke against changing the regulations and in favor of maintaining stream buffer protections. This is what can happen when we all work together for our community. Here is my testimony:

I support keeping Chatham County’s science-based ephemeral stream buffer requirements.

The proposed revisions are solutions in search of a problem, or from my perspective, they seem to stem from an erroneous theory about local economic development.

First, we have had zero problems with the current stream buffer requirements because we have had virtually no development requests since were enacted in 2008.  The conservative or pragmatic approach to  concerns raised would be wait until we have had some real, on-the-ground complaints from actual development requests.  Any developer can seek a variance under the current ordinance that will allow him or her to vary from specific buffer requirements using best management practice that cause less land disturbance and preserve aquatic life and habitat and protect water quality. Then, if there appears to be an ongoing pattern of these variance requests, the county could consider modifying the ordinance accordingly.

Second, I specifically challenge the view that these stream buffers have a negative impact on property values or sustainable economic development – i.e. our ability to support local businesses and attract new ones.  There’s plenty of research showing that protecting watersheds, streams, rivers and water quality enhances the economic attractiveness of a community.  Indeed the recent Chatham Park video shown to the Economic Development Corporation made it clear that Chatham’s rural character and environmental quality are the principle assets the developers are using to promote and attract RTP-type high tech companies to this area.  Moreover, economic cost/benefit studies have found that stream buffers and other environmental protections increase property values for land owners and residents.

Beyond these technical arguments, this issue is personal.  I have two intrepid grand daughters, ages 6 and 4, who live with my daughter and son-in-law in North Chatham where their drinking water source is Jordan Lake.  Buffers around ephemeral steams  are needed  to safeguard their health, and the health of  thousands of residents and tourists living and recreating in the Jordan Lake watershed area.

Those girls also love to play in our creeks and rivers.  Those buffers are needed here because they act as filters to keep them clean.

Finally, my wife and I and many other local residents and tourists,  enjoy bicycling and hiking along those creeks and rivers where we enjoy the wildlife and natural beauty of these waters.  Beautiful streams and rivers do not protect themselves in the midst of development pressures.  They require the type of community protection and enhancement that our current ordinance ensures.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Please maintain our current pragmatic stream buffer requirements.

–Jeff Starkweather

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