June 20, 2014

Efforts to salvage Mountain Island Marine Commission fail, but NC lawmaker still sees hope

Last-ditch efforts to save the Mountain Island Marine Commission have failed, and the public advocate for the region’s largest water supply will dissolve as of June 30.

Last-ditch efforts to save the Mountain Island Marine Commission have failed, and the public advocate for the region’s largest water supply will dissolve as of June 30.

But state Rep. Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg County believes a rebirth of the organization is possible.

In December, Gaston County said it would withdraw from the commission. Officials cited differences with the marine commission that began with a controversial lake management plan in 2010, later tabled, to limit boat sizes and charge fees for people who use the 3,281-acre lake.

Beginning in March, Jeter began reaching out to people in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties in an attempt to spark discussion that could salvage the commission in another form.

Mecklenburg, Gaston and Lincoln counties border the lake and appointed representatives to the seven-member commission, created by state legislation in 1997. If any county withdraws, the commission dissolves by law.

Jeter said talking to key people in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties got nowhere because “there’s a lot of distrust on both sides.”

Meanwhile, he wanted to introduce a local bill in this session of the General Assembly that would re-establish the marine commission, allowing it to continue operating if one county pulled out. But that idea is on hold because he couldn’t get unanimous support of legislative delegations in Mecklenburg, Gaston and Lincoln counties.

If re-elected in November, Jeter said he’ll make the local bill a priority in the long legislative session.

By then, he hopes both sides will have cooled off and be ready to talk.

“Not having the marine commission is not the right path,” Jeter said. “It was a poor decision. But there are ways to fix it. I believe everybody wants the same thing.”

The commission is one of three that serve Mountain Island Lake, Lake Norman and Lake Wylie. Mountain Island Lake is the primary water source for Charlotte, Gastonia and Mount Holly. The commissioners have limited authority, but they work with lake manager Duke Energy, county agencies and the N.C. Wildlife Commission on water quality, shoreline issues and boating safety.

Gaston County commissioners Chairman Tracy Philbeck said the board decided to go ahead and close down the marine commission because “it was working outside of its intended scope.”

He believes the lack of the marine commission won’t be harmful for the lake.

“We will still have all the safeguards in place,” Philbeck said.

At the marine commission’s final meeting on June 4, members heard from supporters and said their farewells.

Commission member Cathy Roche expressed her frustration over the shutdown.

“I said I was disgusted petty politics destroyed an important institution,” she recalled. “It was sad.”

Roche thinks Gaston leaders were “very shortsighted.” As for the possibility of a new version of the marine commission taking shape she said “I don’t have a whole lot of hope unless a lot of people get very upset about the lack of buoys and safety. If there’s a public outcry, there will be some folks who pay attention.”

According to commission treasurer Brian Weyeneth, as the organization disbanded, it donated more than $27,000 toward equipment upgrades and enhancements with public safety groups in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties.

About $15,300 went to the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation to do a long-term study of sedimentation on the lake. The N.C. Wildlife Federation got $8,000 for enhancement to a natural habitat development and restoration of wildlife specifically for Mountain Island Lake.

Just under $4,200 went for administration costs and buoy reimbursements. The remaining fund balance is being returned to the three counties funding the commission. Mecklenburg and Gaston will get about $13,000 each and Lincoln about $1,000.

Weyeneth said that under the watchful eyes of Duke Energy, Gaston and Mecklenburg police, and the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, Mountain Island Lake will “get along just fine.”

He believes that with so many neighborhoods around the lake another group will spring up to look after Mountain Island’s best interests.

“And they don’t need to get government funding to make it happen,” Weyeneth said.

He enjoyed working with the lake commission and believes the investments it made “will go a long way to improving the lake for generations of people who will use it in the future. I think if you ask folks a year from now if they remember the marine commission they’ll say ‘Yes, they did some good things.’”

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