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Environment agency chief out to earn trust, respect

RALEIGH (AP) — For years, North Carolina’s new environmental agency chief straddled the chasm between regulators and the regulated.
John Skvarla was CEO of a company that restored wetlands and protected streams, in turn helping developers get environmental permits to build elsewhere. He earned friends and adversaries in business and conservation circles because he both profited from cleaning up lands and supported environmental regulations.
“I own the badge of being hated by both,” Skvarla quipped during an interview late last week with The Associated Press.
Now, Gov. Pat McCrory’s pick as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is using that unique perspective in trying to win over businesses and GOP legislators with residual frustrations and suspicions about the lightning-rod agency, which is in Republican hands after 20 years under Democratic administrations.
“Our job is to earn your trust and respect,” Skvarla told a joint House-Senate budget subcommittee earlier this month.
Seemingly every GOP lawmaker has an anecdote about a business owner back home drowning in paperwork or delays in getting needed environmental permits. One legislator said two projects across the street from each other are requiring two different solutions — even though the projects are being done by the same company a year apart and required identical environmental mitigation. Even Skvarla said McCrory brought him in during his second week on the job to resolve an issue with a manufacturer that was delayed in building a plant over a stormwater permit and had offered nine proposals to regulators to solve it.
“The agencies need to be on our side, rather than against us,” said Tony Gupton, a Franklin County convenience store owner. Gupton said unreasonable underground gasoline tank rules forced him to shutter his store’s eatery a few years ago. “I hope things will change.”
Skvarla said some state regulators have been too zealous at times and favored the environment to the detriment of businesses that want to create jobs in a state that still has 9.2 percent unemployment. He told legislators businesses would no longer have to guess what steps are needed to get permits approved to build things. Instead, he said, businesses will be treated like customers by the 4,000-employee department.
“We are a service agency. We are not to be an obstacle of bureaucratic resistance,’ Skvarla said. “Our job is to take (a business) by the hand and determine how quickly we can get to the outcome within the confines of the rules and regulations.”
Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and cut the department’s budget in Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration by 12 percent in 2011 and even deeper in 2012. The reductions were partially a reflection of what GOP leaders considered to be anti-business vibes within the agency.
New GOP legislators interested in regulatory changes and visited by Skvarla or a top assistant are happy about department’s direction.
“It’s very important to the economy that we find ways to expedite the process so that we can encourage people to come to North Carolina and build things,” said freshman Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover and an environmental engineer. “The good thing is that we have leadership at DENR now that has the same vision.”

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