EAST LAKE — On the straight, flat stretch of two-lane U.S. 64 where they live near the foot of the Alligator River bridge, Rosemarie and Steve Doshier can see what’s coming a long way off.
It looks to them like what’s bearing down now is a state Department of Transportation plan for a new four-lane divided highway that threatens to nearly obliterate their community or else plow through the protected wildlife preserves around it.
“That road’s going to be built,” Steve Doshier has concluded. “It’s signed, sealed and delivered, whether it’s needed or not.”
The Department of Transportation is at odds with local residents, environmentalists and some federal agencies over whether there is a need to widen the last 27.3 miles of two-lane U.S. 64 that remain between Raleigh and the Outer Banks. The rest of the 200-mile route has been widened or rebuilt over the past two decades, in keeping with the state’s huge commitment in 1989 to create a network of four-lane highways throughout the state.
The U.S. 64 improvements have cut nearly two hours off the time it takes for tourists leaving Raleigh to plant their feet in the sand at Nags Head, but plans for the last segment are stirring up a fuss.
The project starts just east of the town of Columbia in Tyrrell County, crosses into Dare County over the decaying 2.8-mile Lindsay C. Warren Bridge on the Alligator River, traverses the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and reconnects with the four-lane highway in Manns Harbor.
The state is planning to replace the bridge and determine a route for the highway, with right-of-way purchasing to begin in 2014.
In the draft environmental impact statement it released earlier this year, DOT said the project would fulfill the legislature’s vision for U.S. 64, improve hurricane evacuation from the Outer Banks, and possibly reduce the number of wrecks, including those involving black bears from the wildlife refuge. It would cost between $350 million and $399 million.
There seems to be nearly universal agreement on the need to replace the bridge, which was built in 1962. It has structural problems and has to stop all traffic to swing aside its central span to let river boat traffic through. A new, four-lane high-rise under which boats could freely pass would cost an estimated $22.5 million by itself, according to DOT.
Opponents have disputed the state’s claims about hurricane evacuation times and said the road would cause more harm to animals in the wildlife refuge and a state game preserve by damaging and fragmenting their habitat, which includes thousands of acres of sensitive wetlands. They also complain that the state’s description of where the road might go – including 13 alternate routes through the unincorporated community of East Lake alone – is so bewildering that no one can figure out how the project might affect their particular property.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, has not taken a position on the project because the state’s plans are so vague it isn’t clear how much the road might encroach on the refuge. But it has the potential to be highly disruptive, officials say, and as presented so far, it appears incompatible with federal guidelines on how refuge land can be used.
“The issues we face from a purely ecological or wildlife standpoint are many,” said Dennis Stewart, wildlife biologist for the refuge, 153,000 acres of largely undisturbed swamp forests and wetlands. “There will be more impacts from this highway upgrade than probably any other road project in the state.”
An old timber town
The refuge, which stretches both north and south of existing U.S. 64, was created in 1984 with land donated by Prudential Life Insurance. Historians say its earliest settlers arrived in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
In 1885, three lumbermen from Buffalo, N.Y., bought land here to set up a timber operation and camp that included hundreds of homes for workers and their families, with rail lines and barge canals for sending cut pines, cypress and juniper to northern markets. The operation eventually went bankrupt.
Some of Steve Doshier’s ancestors worked for the timber operators; he has framed black-and-white photos of some of them taken in the lumber community called Buffalo City in the early 1900s. At the end of Buffalo City Road, right off U.S. 64, canoeists and kayakers now put in for hours of paddling on Boat Bay and connected watery paths inside the refuge, where they might spy red-cockaded woodpeckers, bald eagles and dozens of other bird species.
The refuge also is home to one of the largest black bear populations on the East Coast, and it is the site of a successful reintroduction of red wolves. Refuge waterways are the northern extent of the American alligator’s natural range in North America; the waters are also populated by gar, pickerel, white and yellow perch, striped bass and blueback herring.
Doshier’s family roots are the reason he and his wife relocated to East Lake in 1973, buying 40 acres of family land and building a house where they raised three children. Just a 20-minute drive from the Outer Banks, where seven million people visit each year, East Lake is a rural retreat, with maybe 150 residents living along five miles of highway.
Widening U.S. 64 along its current path could take 12 houses and require the relocation of their residents, most of whom are paying no more than a $500 month for small houses or trailers and couldn’t afford to move toward the beach, where rents are much higher.
Depending on the route, widening the road could also require the relocation of the white wood-framed East Lake Methodist Church, built in 1887, its 175 graves, which date to the late 1800s, as well as the East Lake Fire Tower, built in 1936. All three are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It could also take the East Lake Community Center, the main gathering place for local residents.
Similarly, widening the road in Tyrrell County could force the relocation of some of the residents in tiny Alligator, just north of the highway, and would put the road so close to St. John Baptist Church that the traffic noise likely would disrupt the peace of Sunday morning services, according to the state’s draft report.
Avoiding these communities would involve building four-lane bypasses to the north or south, which would cut further into protected lands and animal habitat.
‘It’s wet, but it’s ours’
In its response to the draft environmental impact statement, the N.C. Coastal Federation faults the state for failing to describe road alternatives so the public can understand them. It also disputes that four lanes are needed for hurricane evacuation, citing studies by Dare County that 70 percent of its summertime population of 220,000 people evacuate to the north, via U.S. 158.
That leaves 66,000 to evacuate on U.S. 64, and because the county requires visitors to leave 24 to 48 hours ahead of a hurricane, the existing road is adequate for the job, the coastal federation says.
The Southern Environmental Law Center joined with the Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Wilderness Society in a response to the state’s draft report, saying the U.S. 64 widening project illustrates how the legislature’s intent to establish four-lane highways across the state has taken on a life of its own.
“Just because it’s on the plan, it’s going to get built, without any real need for it,” said Kym Hunter, associate attorney for the environmental law center. “Our concern is that there are a lot of these roads that aren’t really in the best interests of the state anymore, especially given the state’s current funding abilities. But the DOT kind of just moves doggedly along without much question about what they’re doing.”
Hunter thinks it’s time for the legislature to reconsider the plan.
So does Rosemarie Doshier.
“This land is low, and it’s wet, but it’s ours,” she said. “It feels like the state doesn’t care about us.”