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Stewardship of the Environment a Key Issue in Senate District 15

GOP incumbent Hunt faces 'Mr. Greenjeans' Hutchinson in Wake district

While they don’t agree on everything, the Republican and Democrat running for North Carolina Senate District 15 — which encompasses part of North Raleigh and part of Wake Forest — put environmental protection near the top of their political agendas.

Republican incumbent Sen. Neal Hunt, a retired developer and contractor, has built about 4,000 “environmentally friendly” multifamily housing units across the Southeast. He’s served as chairman of the Raleigh Planning Commission and the Raleigh Comprehensive Planning Committee.

Democrat Sig Hutchinson, a professional speaking consultant and cofounder of the Raleigh Downtowner Magazine, is known locally as “Mr. Greenjeans” for sitting on boards such as Triangle Land Conservancy, Triangle Transit Authority, and the Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee, and for his central role in creating 150 miles of greenways in the Triangle.

Both candidates have taken a particular interest in land use and development policy in the Triangle, agreeing that protecting the natural beauty and resources of the area is key to promoting economic development.

In the recently released legislative scorecard (PDF download) of the short session of the General Assembly from the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, Hunt, along with retiring Wake County GOP Sen. Richard Stevens, had the highest score of any Republican senator, siding with the league on five of 10 scored votes. His lifetime score of 65 is the third-highest of any sitting Republican senator.

City planning

“The old-style way of doing multifamily development was to get the bulldozer out and make a clear, flat piece of land,” Hunt said in a telephone interview. “My philosophy has always been to put the buildings up in connection with the land. In other words, don’t rape the land. Go ahead and put the buildings on a knoll and preserve the trees around it.”

Hunt is known for preserving the terrain under and around his apartment and condo projects. He says he’s not an advocate of requiring all developers to do the same, but he’s “of the perspective that it is good for society and the developer to protect the environment.”

Hunt said he was put on Raleigh’s planning committees by conservatives to make sure liberals on the panels wouldn’t “go overboard and mandate what color you can paint your house.”

When asked about the balance between city planning and property rights, Hunt responded that it was a necessary function of government to oversee developers’ plans, create separate zones for different types of development, and dictate appropriate uses for private land.

“Nobody would like to have a casino built right next to their house, for example,” he said.

Hunt said requiring landowners to have a “tree buffer” around the perimeter of their property was one example of an appropriate land-use regulation.

“It’s to protect your neighbors,” he said. “Most neighbors would like to have their trees cleared right up to the property line, but to provide a more attractive streetscape when you’re driving into town, you need tree buffers.”

Open space

Hutchinson said the government not only should preserve the environmental amenities on private property that’s being developed for homes or businesses; it should purchase private land to protect it from being developed at all.

Hutchinson said he was behind three bond referendums, valued at almost $100 million, to preserve nearly 4,000 acres of “permanently protected open space.”

Governments need to purchase and preserve open or “green” space, Hutchinson said, and to build greenways, mountain bike trails, nature trails, whitewater parks, and climbing walls, in order to attract “creative-class” professionals. Those professionals will attract companies looking for a young, creative work force, he said.

Another thing government needs to do to attract these individuals is provide more alternative transportation, including mass transit, he said.

Hutchinson envisions “a seamless, interconnected transportation network, so that sidewalks connect to greenways, which then connect to bike lanes, which then connect to transit, which then connect to roads and destinations where people ultimately want to go.”

Economic development

In addition to spending more money on open space and transit, Hutchinson said, the state needs to increase spending on science, technology, education, and the arts to foster economic development.

Taxpayers also should spend more money in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus, the Solar Center, wind technology, and smart grid technology, he said. They also need to spend more supporting the state’s universities, pre-kindergarten programs, and institutions of art such as ballets, the symphony orchestras, and art museums.

Hunt said reducing spending should be the goal, though he offered few specifics. “Every department has issues,” he said. “Each department needs to be looked at to make sure they’re spending the money efficiently.”

He said another way to create jobs and stimulate the economy would to cut regulations, noting that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has passed more than 15,000 regulations in the past 10 years.

He said the Republicans made a good start on regulatory reform last summer by prohibiting the DENR from creating any new regulations unless mandated by the federal government.

He also said the state’s business climate had a larger impact on the economy than the state’s environmental regulations. “I think it’s more our general business structure, our having the highest taxation in the Southeast” that hold back economic growth, he said.

Abortion

One clear area of disagreement was abortion policy. While Hunt supported legislation that requires doctors to show pregnant women an ultrasound of their babies and wait 24 hours before going forward with the procedure, and defunding Planned Parenthood, Hutchinson supports taxpayer-funding of the organization, which provides free or discounted birth control and abortions.

Hutchinson said he didn’t “want to get into” direct taxpayer funding of abortions. “That’s above my pay grade.” Planned Parenthood provides tens of thousands of women with free birth control and free cancer screenings, he said. It also happens to provide abortions, which are legal procedures, he said.

There are slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats in Senate District 15. A little more than a fifth of voters in the district are unaffiliated. The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation said this race could be “one of the most competitive in the state.”

Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.