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High stakes / January 22, 2014
“Hidebound,” “intransigent,” “bureaucratic,” “jaw dropping” — none of these words are normally considered terms of endearment.

But for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hereabouts, it was about as good as the agency could have expected to hear this week.

The Corps dropped an apparent stink bomb on landowners and property-related businesses around Buggs Island Lake when it sent out a Jan. 13 notice announcing a moratorium on shoreline use permits, including docks and buoys, along the lake’s 800-mile perimeter. The Corps announced the moratorium would remain in place as it updates its shoreline management plan, last amended in 1995.

In a media release, the Corps Wilmington District noted that the review and comment period could take up to a year. One full year — how many dock builders, landscapers and other lakefront-centric service providers would be able to make a go of it with the Corps staunching their cash flow for the duration of 2014?

Fortunately, by Tuesday (after government agencies returned to work after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday), the Corps clarified its position: The moratorium doesn’t apply to property owners who have standing permits. They can continue to build new docks and buoys or to modify existing ones, subject to the normal review process. The same grandfathered treatment applies to homeowners who want to clear brush, build up rip-rap or make other shoreline improvements — just as long as they aren’t applying anew for permits. In other words, lakefront dwellers can move forward with planned upgrades to their properties without worrying too much about the new rules.

The moratorium does throw a curveball at prospective buyers of lakefront property (shoreline use permits won’t transfer with the sale). Our local real estate agents can’t be too happy about that. Still, in backing away from a blanket moratorium that would have swept up property owners in the here and now, the Corps may have staved off a major headache for itself.

Fortunately so. More than one lakefront property owner (and business owner) no doubt hit the roof upon receiving the initial notice from the Corps announcing the moratorium. If all the Corps is guilty of here is failure to adequately communicate its position, well, hey, I can identify. The difference is, when I garble my thoughts in writing, no one much cares. When the Corps does the same, people sit up and take notice — as well they should.

This episode does point up what can be fairly characterized as a disconnect between the Corps and the wider lake community. The last time we went through this process of a shoreline management plan update, the Corps expended a great deal of effort to reach out to various stakeholders — property owners, businesses, local governments, recreational interests and assorted others — to explain what was going on and to seek out their input. This time around, folks received a notice in the mail.

One can only speculate why the Corps’ approach would be so different today compared to what it was two decades ago, but it’s hard to dismiss two possibilities: one, the sensitivity of the Corps to local needs has waned with the retirements of many of its longstanding managers living in the community, and two, the department itself isn’t what it used to be. For decades, the Corps cultivated — intentionally or not — a reputation as a dictatorial entity than ran the lake pretty much as it pleased. That changed right around the time of the 1995 shoreline update, with the Corps becoming, by most accounts, more flexible and easy to deal with. (Exactly how flexible, of course, is a matter of opinion.) Yet the Corps hardly can be all things to all people, and lately it hasn’t helped that the department has been forced to furlough staff under the federal budget sequester. One hesitates to carry this argument too far — of all the agencies of the federal government that could stand a haircut, the Corps rates fairly high on the list — but the problem with the sequester isn’t so much that it cut spending, but that it cut spending in stupid fashion. It has hardly mattered if programs were beneficial or not, each was subject to a same level of cuts.

Whether these considerations bear on the Corps’ actions this week, I honestly don’t know. We should learn more as time goes on — it’s early in the process, and the Corps’ willingness to relax its position in some key respects is encouraging. If you’d like to press your own view, the opportunity is coming: The Corps has set public meetings in South Hill (Feb. 4), Clarksville (Feb. 6) and Henderson, N.C. (Feb. 11). The full schedule appears elsewhere in today’s Sun.

It behooves the Corps to recall that the original mission of Kerr Lake, flood control, was paired with the stated desire to create recreational and economic opportunities across a region still recovering from the Great Depression. Today, Mecklenburg County is very lucky to have two beautiful lakes around which it can build various types of economic opportunities. But the formula works only when the various players on the water — public and private — come together to pursue common goals. The stakeholder approach isn’t simply a framework for placating individual special interests, it’s a way to work out differences in the pursuit of the greater good. In that, it’s a high-stakes proposition for all.

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