N.C. stormwater rules receive final approval

Stormwater rules for new homes and businesses in coastal North Carolina received final legislative approval Monday night thanks to a compromise reached by local governments, homebuilders and environmentalists.

The House voted 105-4 in support of the rules, capping a lengthy process for placing broader restrictions on rainwater runoff for development from the current three coastal counties to 20.

Rainwater runoff controls required for commercial and residential development on land near streams, lakes and estuaries will help reduce nutrients and bacteria in waters where shellfish breed, according to environmentalists.

The measure, which passed the Senate last week, now goes to Gov. Mike Easley's desk for his signature.

Child abuse felonies

Two new felonies involving child abuse are awaiting Gov. Mike Easley's signature.

The legislature gave its final approval Monday night to a bill creating new criminal counts involving abuse that wasn't intentional but stemmed from negligence by the parent or caretaker.

Those crimes have been misdemeanors.

The bill would make it a felony if the activity shows reckless disregard for human life and leads to either serious bodily injury or physical injury. The more serious felony count would be punishable by up to roughly six years in prison. The lower grade can reach about two years.

The Senate voted 44-0 in favor of minor changes to the bill made by the House.

Public records lawsuits

The Senate signed off Monday on a plan that would require local governments to pay the legal bills of citizens who file and win lawsuits after being illegally denied access to public records.

The measure would guarantee record-seekers compensation for their legal bills if they win lawsuits demanding access to the files. Mandating compensation would ensure citizens and organizations aren't left to foot hefty legal bills after taking the government to court to require it to release information it should have never denied.

Current state law gives judges discretion to award money for legal bills. But the bill's proponents, including Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, have said judges are often reluctant to award the fees, which are drawn from the local government unit's coffers.

Bill sponsor Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, said he decided to push for the change after learning of some recent cases where newspapers have endured protracted and expensive legal proceedings to access public records.

The legislation approved Monday allows the Department of Justice to charge a “reasonable fee,” but it doesn't set limits on the fee nor specify who will be charged – the government unit, the record-seeker, or both.

The bill now heads to the House, which must approve the plan before it can be sent to Easley.