Riverkeepers take to the IMAX screen at NC conference

Bottom right, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell and Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop introduce their topic while the IMAX screen above introduces them to the conference audience.

Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell and Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop lit up the IMAX stage this week at the North Carolina Conservation Network Conference.

The two participated in a “Lightning Round of Successes” for conference attendees, with conservation organizations highlighting a recent success they’ve celebrated. For Jill and Sam, that was a few land-use victories: Sam spoke about the Durham City-County Planning Commission voting no to proposed development where so many others in-process were already impacting local creeks; Jill highlighted the win in Kittrell in late 2020, when the local Board of Adjustment denied a conditional use permit for a landfill on property with a creek running through it and abutting a historic Black community.

Sound Rivers’ Riverkeepers and seven other presenters shared their wins at the Marble Science Museum where the conference was held.

“It was in the IMAX theatre — so it was very intense,” Jill laughed. “The presentations were all pretty good.”

Check out the PowerPoint they presented and accompanying script are below!

Script:

SLIDE 1 INTRODUCTION

Sam Krop, Neuse Riverkeeper

Jill Howell, Tar Pamlico Riverkeeper

We work with Sound Rivers to protect and monitor Tar Pam & Neuse River watersheds

 

SLIDE 2

In our experiences monitoring land use changes in our watersheds, we’ve seen harmful proposals pushed across the finish line with little public input or accountability. In some cases, this has resulted in residents waking up to a new industrial polluter breaking ground in their neighborhood. In others, forested rural communities have become paved, subdivided and developed almost overnight. We’ve learned that this process is stacked against the smallest stakeholders, and that when community members find out about harmful proposals its too often too late to stop them.

SLIDE 3

Thankfully though, we have also learned that when communities are able to organize and engage at the local level – at planning boards, zoning boards, city council, and the like – we can win some unexpected victories.

We want to share two examples of such victories today.

 

SLIDE 4 Lick Creek Example (SAM)

The first:

In Durham County, residents are organizing to lessen the impacts of large-scale development along Lick Creek–a tributary of Falls Lake and the drinking water supply for all of Wake County. There, a matrix of new subdivisions has transformed what was once a forested rural community into subdivided lots and densely packed homes.

SLIDE 5

Community members called Sound Rivers after noticing that Lick Creek and its tributaries were running red with clay coming off of ongoing developments after big rains. Together, we recorded turbidity readings that far exceeded sediment standards for drinking water and engaged local media who took interest in the “tomato soup red waters”.  With the increased attention, more community members came out of the woodwork to speak out and attend planning board and city council meetings.

So far, this community pressure has won two major victories in the Lick Creek watershed: last month, the Durham County Planning Board unanimously denied a rezoning that would have converted 280 acres of old forest into market rate townhomes. Then, just two weeks ago, the Durham City Council killed another large subdivision development along the Creek after community organizers turned out to the meeting in force, handing city councilmembers bottles filled with muddy water from Lick Creek. Now that is effective local organizing.

SLIDE 6: KITTRELL EXAMPLE (JILL)

Our second example starts in August 2020 when a few Kittrell residents received a notice in the mail – the Vance County Board of Adjustment would hold a quasi-judicial hearing for a conditional use permit for an LCID landfill. The proposed site was undeveloped, steeply sloped forested land, with a creek running through it, surrounded mostly by residential neighbors, farms, and forest.

Residents reached out to me, unsure how to engage in a quasi-judicial process, especially with such short notice – they received their notice letters informing them of the project just 10 days prior to the hearing.

Meanwhile the property owner and his attorney had been preparing for years, beginning with quietly changing a zoning ordinance, adding landfills as a use allowed under a conditional use permit.  At the hearing they presented hours of expert testimony concluding the landfill would have no environmental impacts, no impact on property values, no impact on traffic. We managed to do enough to get the Board to delay a decision – they gave us 60 days to essentially prepare our own case…and so we did.

I found a pro bono land use attorney to represent the landowners, a former WRC biologist to testify as an expert, and the landowners and I all spoke.

And it was clear from their questions that the Board understood and grew to share the concerns we raised.

It took 6 months and 4 additional hearings, but ultimately the Board denied the permit in the spring of 2021.

SLIDE 7

In both of these examples, local decision-makers denied project proposals not necessarily because they had to – they would have been within bounds to approve this development and this landfill – but because concerns raised by community members and landed.

SLIDE 8

We also know it’s impossible to monitor every single harmful land use proposal at every board or council meeting, and public notification is really a joke – so we’re aware broader policy changes are needed, but in the meantime… working with impacted folks at the local level provides the possibility to engage and win not only on a single bad project proposal, but future ones too.