RALEIGH — For years, North Carolina's new environmental agency chief straddled the chasm between regulators and the regulated.
John Skvarla was CEO of a company that restored wetlands and protected streams, in turn helping developers get environmental permits to build elsewhere. He earned friends and adversaries in business and conservation circles because he both profited from cleaning up lands and supported environmental regulations.
"I own the badge of being hated by both," Skvarla quipped during an interview late last week with The Associated Press.
Now, Gov. Pat McCrory's pick as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is using that unique perspective in trying to win over businesses and GOP legislators with residual frustrations and suspicions about the lightning-rod agency, which is in Republican hands after 20 years under Democratic administrations.
"Our job is to earn your trust and respect," Skvarla told a joint House-Senate budget subcommittee earlier this month.
Seemingly every GOP lawmaker has an anecdote about a business owner back home drowning in paperwork or delays in getting needed environmental permits. One legislator said two projects across the street from each other are requiring two different solutions — even though the projects are being done by the same company a year apart and required identical environmental mitigation. Even Skvarla said McCrory brought him in during his second week on the job to resolve an issue with a manufacturer that was delayed in building a plant over a stormwater permit and had offered nine proposals to regulators to solve it.
"The agencies need to be on our side, rather than against us," said Tony Gupton, a Franklin County convenience store owner. Gupton said unreasonable underground gasoline tank rules forced him to shutter his store's eatery a few years ago. "I hope things will change."
Skvarla said some state regulators have been too zealous at times and favored the environment to the detriment of businesses that want to create jobs in a state that still has 9.2 percent unemployment. He told legislators businesses would no longer have to guess what steps are needed to get permits approved to build things. Instead, he said, businesses will be treated like customers by the 4,000-employee department.
"We are a service agency. We are not to be an obstacle of bureaucratic resistance,' Skvarla said. "Our job is to take (a business) by the hand and determine how quickly we can get to the outcome within the confines of the rules and regulations."
Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and cut the department's budget in Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration by 12 percent in 2011 and even deeper in 2012. The reductions were partially a reflection of what GOP leaders considered to be anti-business vibes within the agency.
New GOP legislators interested in regulatory changes and visited by Skvarla or a top assistant are happy about department's direction.
"It's very important to the economy that we find ways to expedite the process so that we can encourage people to come to North Carolina and build things," said freshman Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover and an environmental engineer. "The good thing is that we have leadership at DENR now that has the same vision."
Environmentalists distressed by Republican changes at the department say helping companies comply with the law is good for all citizens but question whether the recent deep cuts will stretch the agency too thin to carry out its core functions.
"Customer service often takes resources," said Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund and department secretary in the late 1990s during Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt's final term in office. "It's appropriate to help get people through the regulatory process, but I think it's also important ... to make sure people comply with their permits."
Skvarla said he's hired an ombudsman to help with customer service issues. A House panel is considering how to eliminate outdated or unnecessary rules and streamline environmental permitting.
The number of permits approved by the department in seven major categories fell from 13,700 during the 2006-07 fiscal year to 8,600 in 2009-10. The reduction is likely attributed to the Great Recession drying up business expansion. Average processing times for permits in several key areas from July 2007 to June 2011 have fallen slightly, according to the agency.
Others interviewed said problems with environmental permitting go below rule-making to department "policies" or "standards" that create ambiguity and give regulators more latitude in permit qualifications.
"Policy evolves from one regulator to another, it evolves from one regional office to another and to one department and another," said first-term Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender and a civil engineer. Some recommend requiring these policies to also go through the cumbersome formal rule-making process, too, so that requirements can't be fudged.
Skvarla said ground-level regulators need discretion, in part because rules can't address every conceivable situation.
He said that many problems in anecdotes are overstated, and that ambiguity will decrease when a customer-service mentality seeps to all areas and trust is restored between the agency and legislators.
"The legislature has attempted to micromanage DENR because what happens is you hear these stories, and every story gets blown about proportion, but unfortunately they happen in all the districts," Skvarla said.