SHELBY, N.C. (AP) — A proposed reservoir for Cleveland County is pitting environmentalists, who say lawmakers have bent the rules to benefit developers, against proponents who say the project is necessary for water supply.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reports (http://bit.ly/GzArk2) the proposed $95 million John Cline Reservoir has garnered special attention in the legislature and in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and by DENR, which oversees the Clean Water Act for the federal government.
The newspaper reports one powerful lawmaker, Rep. Tim Moore, is an attorney for the water authority pushing the project, while another has done work for a real estate company that hopes to benefit from the lake.
The project has attracted land developers, who have bought up options for possible construction of lakeshore homes if the reservoir is built. Reservoir backers say the fight involves trying to move forward on a project stymied for years by government regulators and environmentalists.
A consultant's study prepared for the Corps and Cleveland County Water found there were far cheaper alternatives, including purchasing water from the towns of Forest City, Kings Mountain or Shelby.
Environmentalists also say the Cline Reservoir is not needed for water and that the dam is being driven by economic-development interests.
Clyde "Butch" Smith, manager of Cleveland County Water, says a reservoir is the only long-term solution to the county's needs. He argues that water purchased from other towns would be unreliable during a drought.
"Trust me, we don't want to take on an $80 million to $100 million debt," said Smith said. "If there was an alternative to come out cheaper, we would."
According to the newspaper, Smith was appointed to the state Environmental Management Commission by House Speaker Thom Tillis in 2011. The body oversees and adopts rules for DENR.
Cleveland County Water serves 57,000 mainly rural residential customers in four counties in North Carolina and South Carolina. The authority wants to dam the First Broad River, covering 1,400 acres of forest and farmland and destroying 24 miles of stream, six acres of wetland and roughly 10 homes.
In the months after Cleveland County Water applied for a permit to build the reservoir, four real estate ventures began snapping up land around the proposed lake.
In March 2012, Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherfordton appeared before the Forest City council and told members that if they proceeded with an offer to provide water to Cleveland County, a bill would be introduced in the legislature to block the move. Hager is House majority whip and earlier this month was named by Tillis as co-chairman of the Environmental Review Commission, which evaluates the actions of all state agencies and boards relating to the environment and makes recommendations regarding reorganization and consolidation of environmental regulatory agencies. He is also vice chairman of the House Environment Committee.
One year earlier, the newly elected GOP legislature revamped how DENR handles water projects. The measure now on the books encourages DENR to "become a co-applicant for all required federal approvals" for water supply projects such as reservoirs. It allows DENR to dip into the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which was set up to protect watersheds, to help finance reservoir projects. Among the bill's sponsors was Rep. Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican and the powerful House Rules Committee chairman, who is also legal counsel to Cleveland County Water; and Mitch Gillespie, now assistant DENR secretary but then a state representative.
Moore told the newspaper he has been careful not to mix his legal work with his legislative duty. He was not available for further comment Tuesday night.
Ron McCollum, a land owner in northern Cleveland County who has been fighting the project for years, remains skeptical. When he looks out at the edge of his property, he doesn't see any water but says he does see plenty of political intrigue.
"It's become obvious to us that this is not about water in Cleveland County," McCollum said.
Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com