A group of Outer Banks property owners is suing to stop a new N.C. 12 bridge designed to avoid erosion and frequent storm wash-outs.
Save Our Sound OBX filed the lawsuit Thursday against the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in an effort to force the agencies to study other options for a fragile section of N.C. 12 north of the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe.
The group of 25 property owners in the Rodanthe area argues that the bridge – which would form a “jug handle” shape carrying the road away from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and over Pamlico Sound – would harm tourism and property values in the area.
“That’s a very popular area for water sports enthusiasts and kiteboarders” who rent homes along the stretch, said Mark Haines, a member of the Save Our Sound group. “That’s one of the best spots in the whole Outer Banks.”
Building a 2.4-mile bridge in Pamlico Sound could make the water off-limits for sports because the bridge supports would pose a safety hazard.
Plans for the “jug handle” bridge were made in the wake of a legal settlement between NCDOT and the Southern Environmental Law Center. The environment group had sued to block the replacement of the aging Bonner Bridge, which is located a few miles north of Rodanthe on N.C. 12. It argued that traffic is harmful to the wildlife refuge and sought to force NCDOT to instead replace Bonner Bridge with a 17-mile bridge bypassing the refuge.
NCDOT said the longer bridge would be too costly but compromised in the settlement, which included plans for a new Bonner Bridge and the jug-handle bridge further south as well as the closure of part of current N.C. 12. The state broke ground last March on the Bonner Bridge and plan to finish it by 2019.
Save Our Sound’s lawsuit argues that NCDOT failed to fully study alternatives to the bridge as it worked out the terms of the settlement. The group wants the state to look at keeping N.C. 12 on land by adding sand to the beach and moving the road back from the oceanfront.
“These guys (NCDOT) went to the back room and struck a deal with SELC,” Haines said. “There was no representation of the homeowners.”
NCDOT spokesman Robert Broome said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.
The agency’s website for the bridge project says the current plan “minimizes impacts to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the ocean shoreline and the community of Rodanthe while maintaining safe and reliable access for area residents and visitors to southern Hatteras Island.” It notes that the Federal Highway Administration already funded beach renourishment in 2013 as a “short-term solution” to keep N.C. 12 open following damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Haines says an alternative could be cheaper and that he views the bridge’s $145 million price tag as a “waste of taxpayer dollars.” His group is also concerned that the project would close off the southern end of Pea Island to traffic, making a popular stretch of beach harder to access.
“There has to be a better balance,” he said.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina hasn’t yet set a hearing on the lawsuit. If the court does not block the project, construction is scheduled to begin in 2018.