Judge sides with NCDOT, environmental groups on Rodanthe bridge

Just south of the Bonner Bridge, where N.C. 12 passes through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, work will soon begin on a 2.4-mile bridge that will carry the road out into Pamlico Sound.
Just south of the Bonner Bridge, where N.C. 12 passes through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, work will soon begin on a 2.4-mile bridge that will carry the road out into Pamlico Sound.

A federal judge has ruled against a group of Outer Banks residents and property owners who sued to try to stop construction of a 2.4-mile bridge that would carry N.C. 12 around a section of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and into the village of Rodanthe.

Members of Save Our Sound OBX had asked the court to prevent the N.C. Department of Transportation from going ahead with the $145 million bridge that would carry the road out into Pamlico Sound to avoid the wildlife refuge. They argued that the jug handle bridge, so-called because of its shape, was being rushed without considering the full environmental impacts, which they said include destroying one of the most popular wind-surfing areas along the East Coast.

NCDOT was joined in defending the bridge by two environmental groups, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The two groups were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which had sued NCDOT to try to stop replacement of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet, north of the wildlife refuge. They pressed instead for a 17-mile bridge over the inlet and around the wildlife refuge into Rodanthe.

NCDOT said the longer bridge would be too costly. Instead, along with building the Bonner Bridge, NCDOT agreed to consider building the jug handle bridge at the southern end of the refuge, allowing it to close a part of N.C. 12 through the refuge that is susceptible to ocean overwash during storms. The Rodanthe bridge would require taking 2.79 acres of refuge land, but also return and restore 19.27 acres where part of N.C. 12 would be removed.

The Bonner Bridge replacement is expected to be finished by the end of this year, and NCDOT has awarded a construction contract for the Rodanthe bridge, which is scheduled to be open to traffic in late 2020 barring delays.

Save Our Sound OBX argued that the settlement of the Bonner Bridge lawsuit led NCDOT to not fully study options to the jug handle bridge or consider its impact on the refuge and the Rodanthe area. Mark Haines, a member of the group and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said an appeal is possible.

“We don’t agree with the decision, and we’re considering options moving forward," Haines said.

The group's lawyers have since filed a notice that they intend to appeal and have asked the court to stay its decision pending that appeal.

In a 46-page ruling released Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan weighs and dismisses the plaintiff's claims that NCDOT's decision to build the Rodanthe bridge was made without careful study and was predetermined by the settlement with the environmental groups.

The law center hailed the decision.

“Today’s result is an example of agencies collaborating to select the right approach, adapt to sea level rise and more frequent storms, and preserve natural resources while keeping traffic flowing safely and smoothly,” Kym Hunter, an attorney at the law center, said in a statement. “It is essential that our state and local agencies plan for long-term transportation solutions that keep people safe and adapt to changing conditions such as the highly volatile environment that surrounds N.C. Highway 12.”

The lawsuit underscores the complicated relationship between NCDOT and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which acts on behalf of environmental groups. Two months ago, the law center settled a lawsuit over 10.3-mile U.S. 70 bypass around Havelock, near Morehead City, winning concessions it sought to protect the Croatan National Forest and the endangered red cockaded woodpeckers that live there.

Meanwhile, the law center recently sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to prevent NCDOT from building the final 28.4-mile section of the Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County, arguing that the federal agency has not adequately considered the roads impact on two endangered species of mussels that live in its path.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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