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Mark Marcoplos

Reform Building and Zoning Codes for Affordability

Building & zoning codes drive up the cost of construction. The state building code originates in the N.C. Department of Insurance, so you know they are quite content to spend your money to minimize future claims. The building codes are rife with overbuilt requirements, and building-code officials (in an understandable desire to make sure they are not personally liable for anything) routinely err, often liberally, on the side of spending your money. Factor in the Home Builders Association that, like the Realtor Association, cries crocodile tears for affordable housing while working steadily to increase member profits in every way possible, and you have a formidable institutional fortress guarding against real affordability. However, it would still be beneficial to study the latitude that local building and zoning officials have with code interpretation. Likewise, zoning regulations should be studied to assess their impact on affordability. Since many of the zoning regulations are local, there may be significant opportunities to facilitate more affordability. There are two growing movements that should be factored into future planning and efforts to increase affordability: the co-housing movement and the tiny house explosion. The old model of a mini-McMansion for each family is not realistic. We need to allow for smaller homes (and tiny homes) and enable zoning districts tailored to co-housing that don’t have the same requirements placed on traditional developers. Houses cost a lot to...

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Democracy & Transparency Also Matter to Economic Development

Economic Development has been the most uttered buzz-phrase of the last several years in Orange County politics. Hardly a meeting goes by without someone intoning knowingly that “All agree that we need more Economic Development.” Right on cue, everyone nods sagely in agreement. ….. Imagine your cupboard is bare, and you are making plans to restock.  The household is sitting around the table and someone offers the profound insight that more food is needed. Then everybody nods in solemn agreement with such wisdom. In response, they pledge to get more food and designate a person to get it. Later, some household members begin to wonder what they will see on their table. Will they be served Spam on Wonderbread? Marshmallow-cream sandwiches?  Pink-slime ground beef from Walmart? Or will it be local broccoli from the Farmer’s Market? Locally-raised beef from their neighbor’s farm? It also dawns on them that actually raising some of their own food would help their overall food strategy. Then they realize that there is likely to be a different notion of food for every person who so confidently supported the shopping trip, and they have no idea what is being cooked up for them. ….. In Orange County, we have seen success in many areas of our economy. Carrboro has been fostering small businesses within the “local living economy” model. Local agriculture, in its many forms,...

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What Do You Lose When Walmart Boxes You In?

Nothing seems to bring out the hankies like a Walmart locating near, but not in, Orange County. The local glass-one-tenth-full crowd cranks up their righteous indignation machine. These self-proclaimed financial “realists” can’t see past the tax revenue to begin to understand that everything comes with a price and that price eventually gets translated into the only measurement they seem to understand – actual monetary costs. Walmart’s public relations department has been on the green warpath. The news is that their new stores are energy efficient, they have a goal of running on 100% renewable energy, they have waste reduction programs, and they sell organic food. So what’s the bottom line? Is Walmart a corporation that has seen the light and is now operating sustainably, enhancing the lives of its employees, fueling authentic organic agriculture, and extending these benefits to its international partners? Walmart made $26.6 billion in profit last year. When asked why only 2% of their power consumption comes from renewables, they say that renewables are too expensive. Even with their snail-like progress toward renewables, the total greenhouse gas emissions form Walmart’s operations rose 14% from 2005 to 2010. Cheap (sorry, I meant to say inexpensive) products do not come without a cost on the solid waste side. Low quality products with short durability become a burden on local landfills and solid waste programs. They can recycle all...

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The Biggest Obstacle to Progressive Policy

Deer-dogging can be an unnecessary nuisance. ‘Deer-dogging’ is when deer hunters use dogs to flush deer out of hiding, hopefully toward their masters who are hanging out on their deer stands. Obviously, the dogs often end up on wild goose chases running deer through private property and sometimes getting lost. Then the mighty hunters have to pack up their Cheetos and beer and actually walk in search of their dogs, often trespassing. It’s banned in 39 states. Makes sense – it protects private property and doesn’t restrict deer hunting. Hell, I live out in the country and I could easily “harvest” a deer daily with just a little more effort than it takes to haul my munchies and my gun up to the deer stand. Sometimes I think I could take out one with my Swiss Army knife or a nail-gun at close range. I sure could do it without a dog. But I digress. The Orange County Board of Commissioners unanimously decided in 2010 that they wanted to protect the citizenry by banning deer-dogging. Sounds simple, right? Well, not in North Carolina, where local governments are forbidden from making all kinds of policy changes without a special act of the State legislature. Maybe they wanted to protect the “rural lifestyle” and heritage of North Carolina or they thought PETA must have been involved or they thought it was...

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Emotion vs Science in the Fracking Debate

There was a very revealing moment at last week’s public hearing on fracking in North Carolina. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had heard from a couple of dozen people – a mix of scientists, medical professionals, researchers, landowners in the shale zone, and concerned citizens – all opposing fracking, when Lew Ebert, the CEO of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce stepped to the microphone. He delivered a general plea for more economic growth and offered that the gas deposits represented a wonderful opportunity for the state. As he concluded, he made a remarkable statement. He implored the officials not to “believe the opinions of scientists”. During the previous hour he had heard a geologist who had worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission describe the unique diabase dike formations in the Triassic Basin of central NC. The fissures run vertically, not horizontally as in most places, and would allow fracking fluids much more direct access to groundwater. Another scientist explained that air quality is negatively affected by this type of mining and that high ozone levels have been detected at fracking operations.  He heard a physician speak about the lack of knowledge concerning the health effects of the chemical soup that is injected into the rock to liberate the natural gas. Two people who had lived in Dimock, PA, where extensive fracking is ongoing, presented sobering data...

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What's Fracking Have To Do With It?

The fracking drum is beating louder. Many of us first heard about it when the movie “Gasland” came out, with its shocking footage of a man lighting his tap water on fire. More locally we began to hear about deposits in Lee County that the natural gas industry was interested in. Recently, Governor Perdue took a secret trip to fracking country in Pennsylvania to meet with industry representatives to learn more about the controversial extraction technique. She did not meet with any environmental experts. As is typical whenever Big Energy sets its sights on a new profit source with potential polluting consequences, the jobs mantra leads the way. New information concerning the increase in seismic activity in fracking zones is dismissed by the industry. Their latest predictable strategy is to undermine the reports that the toxic slurry forced into underground fissures to free up the gas deposits is getting into groundwater.   The fracking zone centered around Lee County could affect the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant if seismic activity is provoked. Groundwater absolutely has been tainted by the practice. What does it mean to inject toxins in the Jordan Lake watershed? The gas lobby has the majority of State Legislators on a leash. Gov. Perdue is joining the fast-track parade. The N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has released a study purporting to show that the...

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NCAA Athletes Deserve A Share of the Profits

March Madness brings mad money: money for mammoth coaching salaries, huge revenues for television companies, mega-dough to support the lavish lifestyles of the NCAA bigwigs… College football post-season bowl games reportedly earn more money than the NBA or the NFL. Meanwhile, according to a study by the National College Players Association (NCPA), the average full scholarship at Football Bowl Series universities falls $3,222 short of covering the player’s actual annual expenses. The NCAA’s strict rules forbid athletes from even working part-time jobs to help meet these extra expenses. Many players have families living in poverty, while the profits that could not be generated without them enrich so many others. Some Ohio State football players were caught trading memorabilia for tattoos that were worth less than a couple of hundred dollars. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris was suspended for a game last year over $140 worth of meals and entertainment. UNC defensive end Robert Quinn received about $5600 in benefits which doesn’t seem so rich when compared to Coach Butch Davis’ annual earnings of $2.25 million. The NCPA concluded their report by stating the obvious: paying the players what they need to meet all of their basic expenses could “reduce their vulnerability to breaking NCAA rules.” This type of suggestion creates great gusts of righteous indignation from the NCAA. The brain trust speaks of the sacred nature of amateur athletics. They...

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Orange County Commissioners Are Elected in the Primary

A Republican has never been elected County Commissioner in Orange County history. This is likely to remain true for years to come. A strong majority of county voters are registered as Democrats and a majority of voters are unaware of who their commissioners are and what they do. When the general election rolls around in the fall, there are way more voters than participated in the primary and they are mainly attracted to the big name contests. After they vote for President, Governor, and higher profile legislative candidates, an overwhelming number of voters simply vote the straight party ticket.  Any of the candidates who won the spring Democratic primaries could have died or run naked down Main Street in Hillsborough a week before the election and still been elected in the general election. The winning candidates invariably crow about their large support as evidenced by the general election votes, but they know better.  There have been two primaries since the County Commissioners altered the election process by creating the current unsatisfying system which has some district seats as well as maintaining some at-large seats. A look at the numbers will reveal just how few citizens actually choose our county leaders. In 2008, Steve Yuhasz won the District 2 primary with a grand total of 1489 votes out of 2673 total votes cast for this office. That is not a...

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Industry for a Sustainable Future

It’s time to shift gears on our economic development plans. County leadership seems to be embracing a new openness to encouraging business. Presentations and discussions almost always include vague statements to the effect that we have a new commitment to economic development and a new appreciation of the necessity for being business-friendly. In the absence of a coherent shared vision for specific types of economic activity, it seems that what is actually being discussed is merely modifying processes to allow almost any type of economic activity. The goal is to create jobs and generate tax revenue, worthy and time-honored objectives to be sure. You don’t have to be a futurist or economist to understand that the old bromides are not enough for the uncertain future we face. We are in the days of peak oil, with fluctuations and eventual permanent increases in fuel costs. Additionally, global climate change has already begun to alter the national economy in capricious ways that affect every town and county in the country. Our economic system increasingly puts local governments behind the eight-ball. We need to incorporate resilient and self-reliant systems into our local economic landscape. Imagine if we had a biofuels plant that utilized our waste stream as a raw material. There have been local discussions about a specific technology that removes nearly all of the recyclables and processes the rest into fuel....

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Biggest Policy Failure in County History

At every nearly every fork in the solid waste policy road, Orange County has taken the wrong path. Now we are paying a heavy price for the political cage we built to trap ourselves. Starting with the doomed landfill search in the early 90’s, County leadership insisted on siting a mega-landfill (many potential sites were well over 1,000 acres), while forbidding public discussion of how waste reduction could minimize site size. It was a process that could not have been better designed for failure. In 1992, solid waste staff insisted that we needed a landfill by 1996 because that was when the Eubanks facility would be maxed out. Proponents of a waste-reduction based approach, including myself, studied the available data and concluded in our report that the Eubanks landfill would actually last until sometime around 2003. In retrospect, we were clearly way off the mark. It was actually going to be good for twice as long as we predicted and seven times as long as the solid waste professionals stated. Our point was that we had plenty of time to delay the landfill search while devising a waste reduction plan that would require a much smaller – and therefore easier to site – landfill footprint. This suggestion was dismissed and the mega-landfill search process reached its predictable end when County leaders threw up their hands and blamed the failure...

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