An immodest paving proposal

Big development’s dream legislation has curious origin

For about 20 years, the land surrounding Georgia’s streams has been off-limits to developers. But a move is afoot in the Legislature to change that, with lawmakers behind the bill getting inspiration from — surprise, surprise — some of the state’s biggest developers.

Besides being one of the more egregious environmental threats to come out of the General Assembly, the bill is troubling because of its dubious origin. It was conceived with help from the development industry’s most powerful lobbying firms. And two other firms pushing the bill name among their lobbyists a man who, up until last year, was the state’s top environmental regulator. That’s kind of like the protector of Alaska’s oil-rich wildlife refuge quitting so that he can partner with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Currently, state law protects the 25 feet of land on both sides of waterways from development and other destructive deeds. The areas around streams and rivers are left intact because they act as buffers to filter pollution, absorb rainwater and prevent massive erosion.

This bill, however, would leave thousands of miles of small streams — the headwaters of Georgia’s mightiest rivers, which are the state’s primary sources for drinking water — vulnerable.

“Basically, it’s going to wipe out the majority of our headwater streams from having any kind of state protection,” says Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper attorney Betsy Nicholas.

The state’s Wildlife Resources Division estimates that about 26,000 streams in the Piedmont Region alone — the northern third of the state, except for extreme north Georgia — would be susceptible to development if the bill passes.

The bill, nicknamed the Headwaters Destruction Act by environmentalists, was introduced by Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville. Cagle says he got the idea for the legislation, and suggestions on how to word it, from homebuilders, general contractors and engineering associations — in other words, big development.

Cagle specifically credits three groups with helping him conceive the bill: lobbying firm Joe Tanner & Associates, the Georgia chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, and the Council of Quality Growth, a trade organization for the growth and development industries.

A common thread that weaves throughout these groups is Harold Reheis, who resigned last summer as director of the state Environmental Protection Division.

He’s now senior vice president of Joe Tanner & Associates.

Reheis also happens to be a registered lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, according to the State Ethics Commission. The engineering council is the same group Cagle says “has probably been one of the loudest voices” supporting the bill.

Reheis promised when he resigned that he wouldn’t lobby for a year. Yet he’s a registered lobbyist who’s been spotted at least twice in the Capitol this session.

Even if Reheis didn’t write the bill (we’d ask him, but he didn’t return numerous phone calls), his coziness with the groups that did stresses the need to limit buddy-buddy relationships between former state officials and lawmakers.

While Reheis hasn’t broken any laws, the laws could change — if Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Honesty in Government Act passes. The act, submitted to the General Assembly on Feb. 12, seeks to bar former state employees from lobbying for a year after leaving office.

Reheis aside, Cagle says he will do his best to ensure his bill doesn’t wreak unintended havoc. “I can tell you that this is not by any means a Harold Reheis issue,” Cagle says. “It is a much, much, much larger issue than most people realize. ... I have no intent at all in doing anything that would degrade our streams.”

To his credit, Cagle tabled his bill last week because he wanted more time to study its environmental impact. He expects to have the bill fixed and ready to go in time to make it through this session.

Others expect the same.

Michael Paris, head of the developers group Council of Quality Growth, says, “We have some good people working on [revising the bill], some consultants working on it.”

When asked which consulting firm, Paris says, “Well, Joe Tanner’s office is working on this.”