Economic Development, the Environment, and Knowing Where You Live

About the Author

Jeff Hughes

Jeff Hughes was the Director of the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the UNC School of Government between 2003 and 2019. Hughes currently serves as a Commissioner in the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Jeff Hughes is the Director of the School of Government’s Environmental Finance Center and a School of Government Faculty Member.

Where you live matters. This may seem obvious to anyone in the community and economic development field in the process of promoting their local community, but it might not be as obvious when considering the environmental regulatory implications of a project. Many laws governing key aspects of community and economic development are place-agnostic. In other words, communities in western NC can normally do the same things as communities in the Sandhills as far as offering incentives. Not so in the world of environmental regulations, particularly in terms of water quality.

The one- size-fits-all approach towards water quality environmental regulation that may have been the norm years ago has been replaced with water quality regulations that link what you can and can’t do (and how much it will cost if you can do it) to the watershed where the project is planned. Watersheds across the state have very different features and have a major influence on what types of facilities can be permitted in the watershed. The impacts of this regulatory approach are significant – imagine working as an economic developer and facing the following scenarios:

Going natural with wastewater treatment. Short on funds for a large new mechanical wastewater treatment plant, but find yourself with lots of spare land? You learn that some communities have developed exciting new engineered wetlands to help treat wastewater. These systems sound great – they are attractive, natural, and lower cost than traditional large “plant and pipe” treatment plants. Before you make your pitch to your board, make sure you do not plan on doing one of these systems in one of the many nutrient sensitive areas of the state – it is very unlikely they would produce effluent that would meet necessary requirements.

Going high tech with wastewater treatment. Working with a developer that specializes in highly efficient small scale package treatment plants across the country and who wants to install one to serve a new facility in a coastal community in North Carolina. These facilities require a small footprint and produce effluent that can be discharged directly into nearby rivers or streams. Before you go very far, look into what you can do in your watershed. Some coastal communities in NC are in areas where even with the most effective wastewater treatment plant, it is unlikely that additional surface discharging facilities will be permitted due to water quality concerns. Most likely, you’ll still need the  high tech treatment plant, but you’ll also need lots of land to use as spray fields for the treated discharge.

These are just a few examples of the importance of knowing where you live in the environmental realm. Similar rules impact other types of projects ranging from the creation of regional water systems to the establishment of high density mixed used communities. They may be feasible in one part of the state, and are likely to be infeasible in other parts of the state. In many cases, they may be feasible in one part of the community and infeasible 3 or 4 miles away.

To learn a little more about water classifications in the state and how they may impact community development projects, visit:

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