Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Spilling the beans on Chimney Rock

Gov. Mike Easley’s announcement in Rutherford County Monday about the state’s purchase of privately owned Chimney Rock Park must have been the sort of thing that gives event-planners and spinmeisters heartburn.
The cat got out of the bag early, leaving Easley to announce news that was already on the wires an hour earlier. And the names of anonymous donors of several million dollars that made the deal work got out, too. More on that in a moment.
The Easley administration had worked on the purchase of the 996-acre tract from the Morse family for a couple of years, but things didn’t always go smoothly. After the state appraised the tract at $20 million in value and negotiations bogged down, one person close to the talks says, “The wheels just about came off.” The reason: The state was leery of paying more than the appraised value, and the owners believe it worth a lot more. At one point they listed their property with Sotheby’s Cape Fear for $55 million.
Attorney Michael Leonard of Winston-Salem, who serves on a number of boards of environmental organizations, said the deal was saved at one point thanks to Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke, a lawyer with Moore and Van Allen. Clarke grew up at nearby Hickory Nut Gap Farm, the family place of the late state legislator and U.S. Rep. Jamie Clarke, Dumont Clarke’s father.
Dumont Clarke knew all about the rich ecological diversity of Chimney Rock Park. He was also an attorney for the sellers, and he called Michael Leonard at one point suggesting that The Conservation Fund might be able to help salvage the negotiation. Leonard said he, Conservation Fund official Dick Luddington of Chapel Hill and others stepped in to help with the negotiations. Just before Christmas, he said, the deal was ready to go through. There were rumors in Raleigh that it would happen before the end of the year but, Leonard said, it proved impossible to get all the papers drawn up until after the new year began.
Fast forward to Monday morning. The Easley administration had held its breath, but word didn’t leak out about the announcement until the governor’s office was ready. It put out a news release shortly before 8 a.m. advising news organizations Easley would make an announcement at 11:30 a.m. in Chimney Rock Park. That wasn’t for publication, just an advisory, but it was obvious that a deal was about to be announced.
Trouble is, a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was soon quoted in a wire story an hour before the governor’s announcement with some key details. It noted, among other things, that the $24 million purchase price was aided by an anonymous donation of $2.35 million.
The AP story left Easley in the position of presiding over an announcement that had been pretty well announced an hour earlier. The news release his office put out in Raleigh at 11:30 a.m. – the hour of the announcement in Rutherford County – also noted the $2.35 million anonymous contribution.
Trouble was, word was already out on that, too. Shortly after his arrival, Easley had been introduced to the donors – Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, who have done an enormous amount of good for North Carolina’s environment over the years. Reporters may have noticed. During the announcement ceremony, several officials recognized the Stanbacks. Anyone familiar with the state’s environment would have put two and two together and guessed that the Stanbacks were the donors. Easley himself seemed to confirm it. As the Asheville Citizen-Times reported today, “Easley described the Stanbacks as ‘guardian angels’ who helped bridge a gap in what the state could offer and what the Morse family would sell for.”
Our environmental writer, Bruce Henderson, naturally asked the Stanbacks if they were the donors, and Fred Stanback acknowledged they were.
That’s the story about how the state scooped the governor on his own announcement, and how the governor all but confirmed the identify of the “anonymous” donors.

Friday, January 26, 2007

House speaker's 'dead-end' job

It’s not true that state Rep. Mickey Michaux, Democrat of Durham, has been in politics since the crust of the Earth coooled. He didn’t really get involved until well after Moses had finished elementary school, but many observers can be forgiven for thinking he has been in the General Assembly forever. Here’s how long he’s been there: since four years before I came to Raleigh 30 years ago next month to cover the General Assembly.
Michaux is beginning his 15th term in Raleigh – and that number would probably be 18th had not President Jimmy Carter appointed Michaux to be the first black U.S. Attorney in North Carolina back in 1977. He is the longest-serving Democrat, having been first elected in 1973. Two Republicans have actually served more years; George Holmes came to the legislature in 1975 and Harold Brubaker in 1977, but Michaux was out of the House for nearly eight years.
Michaux poked a little fun at incoming House Speaker Joe Hackney Wednesday when he seconded the nomination of the Orange County Democrat to be speaker. It was a powerful symbol because Michaux himself had been a candidate in the Democratic caucus for speaker. He was one reason, but not the only reason, that former Speaker Dan Blue had trouble rounding up votes for his own candidacy for another term as speaker.
Michaux told the House Wednesday that he had served under nine speakers during his years in the legislature but that when they left the post, they "disappeared off the radar."
He went on: "Why does Joe want a dead-end job?"
That line got a good laugh, especially because Michaux would have taken that dead-end job if he could have won it.
Ex-speakers haven’t really disappeared, but few have gone on to greater things politically. Four ex-speakers were in the chamber: Former Speaker Blue, former Republican Speaker Harold Brubaker and former Speaker Jim Black, who chose not to seek another term after it became clear he could not win the Democratic Caucus nomination because of federal and state investigations into his actions. The fourth speaker present was former Speaker Carl Stewart of Gastonia, the first two-term speaker, who did rise to other heights: he didn’t win a campaign for lieutenant governor in 1984, but he did become chairman of the State Ports Authority.

Monday, January 22, 2007

'Running scared' on the OLF

Fred Howell and his family raise winter wheat, soybeans and corn on several thousand acres of prime farmland near the rural community of Pinetown in northeastern North Carolina’s Beaufort County. A lot of their land would wind up in the Navy’s hands as part of an outlying landing field the Navy wants to use to train pilots to land F/A-18F Super Hornets on aircraft carriers.
Fred and his brothers Glenn and Wilt, their father and a son and nephew want to keep farming. But they won’t be able to buy replacement farmland for what the Navy is willing to pay to take their land. And the uncertainty is tearing the family up.
“It keeps you running scared,” Howell said the other day during a tour of the proposed OLF near the Washington-Beaufort county line. His family has already gone through one huge upheaval. Back in the 1950s, Fred’s dad moved the family from Laurinburg near the N.C.-S.C. border to northeastern North Carolina.
There the family started a wood business, making parts for the N.C. furniture industry. They’d harvest furniture-grade hardwood, cut out rough table legs and ship them to furniture factories for finishing. But as the global market place changed and as federal trade policy led to such things as NAFTA, the wood business turned sour for the Howells.
Then the family borrowed and invested tons of money in equipment to develop their small grains and farm, and gradually did well. But it took the whole family working all the time, Fred says.
“My daddy didn’t believe we ought to work but 24/7,” he said. “We didn’t have much time for social things or sports. We were always working. And if you didn’t have anything to do for a few minutes,” he said with a smile, “you were supposed to stand there and strain.”
When the Navy sent an agent to make an offer for the land, he said, the money wasn’t enough to let the family stay in business. His father, a patriotic man, didn’t want to tell the Navy no if there was absolutely other place to train pilots. “My daddy told the man, ‘If you don’t have any other place to put the OLF, you can have our land.’”
But none of the Howells believe the Navy has no other alternative. Most folks in the region believe there are better places that won’t risk collisions with the large migratory waterfowl that spend up to six months of each year in their fields and the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. One is in Carteret County, another near Vanceboro. There’s also space near the Marine air station at Cherry Point.
But the Howells may not have any say in the matter. If a federal court rules that the Navy has followed the dictates of federal law in examining the environmental impacts of the OLF, then chances are the Navy will proceed – and it won’t be long before the jets are flying there.
The Howells could stay and rent land from the Navy and switch crops, Fred Howell says, but the rents would be high and they won’t be able to afford to buy equipment to farm cotton or some other commodity that won’t provide food for the waterfowl. “It would be like cutting a leg off if they took our land,” he says.

Monday, January 15, 2007

That sinking feeling over rising seas

For all the arguments about the cause of global warming and whether it makes sense to do anything, there are discrete measurements that scientists have been taking for years gauging the loss of coastal land due to several factors: normal erosion, damaging storms and, yep, sea level rise. We’re reported over the years about how land in the coastal region of North Carolina is disappearing – some 1,250 acres per year, according to calculations by Dr. Stan Riggs at East Carolina University. The shoreline in Northeastern N.C. is receding at a rate of about 2.7 feet per year, he concudes.
So the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change is looking, among many other things, at how coastline changes should affect state policy. They heard some eye-opening descriptions from a number of witnesses last week, including Jeff Williams, a coastal marine geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey center in Woods Hole, Mass.
Williams described how sea level rise due to melting of ice caps and glaciers, and the expansion of warming waters, may double the rate from about eight inches in the past century to perhaps 16 inches in the next 100 years. The USGS has studied what it calls coastal vulnerability and has published several maps online. Here’s a link to the East Coast study . Enlarge that map and note that the red areas denote the highest vulnerability – and note that North Carolina has a lot of red areas.
Here's another link, this one to Cape Hatteras and its vulnerability.
Legislators, take note. Does it make sense to rebuild highways and bridges in those areas?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush gives up on N.C. judge

President Bush has evidently given up on any outside chance that the Democrat-dominated U.S. Senate will confirm U.S. District Judge Terry Boyle of Elizabeth City to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond.
That’s too bad. Boyle is – in my opinion, anyway – a good judge who works hard, masters the facts, knows the law and is eminently fair. I don’t know what else you’d want in a federal judge, unless it’s someone who always agrees with what you think should be done, but I don’t know of anyone who fills that bill.
McClatchy Newspapers’ Barbara Barrett, Washington correspondent for The News & Observer, had a story in Wednesday’s paper that the president was not re-nominating four candidates for judgeships, including Boyle. Three of them withdrew; Boyle did not because, as he told Barrett, he’s not quitting. But he does recognize the reality that he won’t get confirmed. If he couldn’t win confirmation when his fellow Republicans controlled the Senate, he wasn’t likely to be confirmed after Democrats took over, he told Barrett.
This is really a shame. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals only has one judge from North Carolina. Years ago, a political game of one-downsmanship has developed between Republicans and Democrats and kept good candidates like Boyle off the Court of Appeals. I’ve spent enough time in his courtroom to recognize that his work ethic, command of the case and no-nonsense temperament would be ideal for the appellate courts.
But the good news is that Boyle gets to remain a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District for as long as he cares to work. That might be small consolation to Boyle and his supporters, but for those who admire the way he runs his courtroom, it’s good to know he’ll still be on the bench.

Monday, January 08, 2007

In trouble? Dial 1-800-D.G. Martin

The North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund – in some political hot water over acquisition decisions that appear to have a strong political connection – made a smart move the other day. It picked former Charlotte lawyer D.G. Martin of Chapel Hill to be the fund’s interim director while the board mounts a search for a successor to former fund director Bill Holman. Here’s a link to the fund’s announcement.
Martin was a wise choice: he’s a steady hand with a devotion to North Carolina and a fine sense of judgment about what’s best for the state. He ran for Congress from the 9th District and lost narrowly, then became a vice president of the University of North Carolina system. After retiring there, he has helped both the UNC Pembroke and the Triangle Land Conservancy, where he was interim director in 2003-04. He also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
Holman resigned from the fund late last year to take a one-year appointment to the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, a post that may lead to a permanent arrangement and a new initiative there on North Carolina and environmental public policy. Holman resigned after members of the fund’s board of directors had complained about the way he ran the organization, but the worst-kept secret in town was that some members of the board of directors had engineered the granting of a considerable amount of trust fund money to their home county of Brunswick. And as the Observer’s Bruce Henderson has reported, the Easley administration pressured the board to purchase some land in Western North Carolina from landowners who later contributed to the governor’s political campaign.
Martin’s interim appointment should help restore public trust in the fund, which administers $100 million in state appropriations to support water quality projects the length and breadth of North Carolina while the board searches for a permanent successor.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Economist: How 'bout those Apps!

One of the things to look forward to in the annual economic forecast presentation by the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry – the state chamber of commerce – and the N.C. Bankers Association is Harry Davis’s remarks. Davis is a professor of banking and an economist at Appalachian State University in Boone, and has helped a lot of us numbers-challenged scribes understand what’s going on in the state’s economy.
He predicted a soft landing for North Carolina this year. Here’s a link to the N.C. Bankers Association, where you can click on forecast presentations from Davis, Moore, Knight Kiplinger and John Allison of BB&T.
Davis has a way with words, too. His presentation Tuesday followed that of State Treasurer Richard Moore, a Wake Forest grad who talked briefly about his high hopes for the Demon Deacons football team in the Orange Bowl. The 15th-ranked Deacs of course won the ACC championship this year and looked forward to their game against No. 5 Louisville. (The Deacons lost, alas, 24-13.
When Harry Davis came to the lectern, he mentioned in a folksy way that he sometimes repeated himself, and then delivered greetings from Appalachian State, whose Mountaineers football team were the national football champions in Division 1-AA in 2006. Then he paused and added something like, “Did I say that before?”
The crowed roared with laughter. They understood that the Apps had won the NCAA national football championship in their division in both 2005 and 2006. And they got Davis’ larger but unmentioned point: If there’s a football school in North Carolina, it’s not on the Division 1 level in Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh or Greenville. It’s in Boone.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More on Duke's 'rush to judgment'

When Mike Skube was Raleigh correspondent for the Winston-Salem Journal, he was a crackerjack reporter who came up with a series of good stories about an overly-ambitious flunky in the Jim Hunt political machine who wrote some nasty memos about other state politicians and their helpers. And when Skube was books editor of The News & Observer of Raleigh, his pointed columns – sometimes on books, sometimes not – were don’t-miss reads. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at the N&O.
Now Skube is teaching journalism at Elon University but his opining hasn’t skipped a beat. He still lives in Durham, and the other day published a column in the Los Angeles Times on the controversy in Durham over charges that three Duke lacrosse players had raped an exotic dancer they hired for a team party. The rape charges have been dismissed, though other serious charges are still pending. Here’s a link to Skube’s commentary.