Lawyers for two conservation groups have agreed to drop their lawsuit and let the state Department of Transportation build a long-delayed 2.8-mile bridge to carry N.C. 12 across the Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks, parallel to the deteriorating Bonner Bridge.
In exchange, DOT will consider – and appears likely to build – a long bridge south of the inlet that would move flood-prone sections of N.C. 12 out of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, traveling over Pamlico Sound for 7 miles.
The agreement was announced Monday by DOT and the Southern Environmental Law Center, settling a 2011 lawsuit that prevented DOT from executing a $215.8 million contract for the Bonner Bridge replacement.
It represents a compromise between clashing visions for protecting the Outer Banks and its highway, N.C. 12, which frequently is undermined by ocean storms and faces a losing battle in the face of rising sea level.
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The state wanted approval by the federal courts to replace Bonner Bridge with a similar, parallel structure while it postponed decisions on how to protect other stretches of N.C. 12 south of the inlet on Pea, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. The environmental lawyers favored a 17-mile long bridge over Pamlico Sound that would move the highway toward the west, bypassing the wildlife refuge entirely and lifting it higher above the stormy seas.
“I think it is a true compromise, and it is a win-win for everyone,” Julie A. Youngman, a Chapel Hill-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Monday. “The primary interests in this case have been protecting safe and secure transportation that will be available long term, and protecting the refuge as a refuge for wildlife – and the values it was set aside by the federal government to protect.”
The center represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association in their 2011 lawsuit against DOT.
“We appreciate the efforts of all parties to agree on a viable solution that best serves the people and interests of North Carolina,” DOT Secretary Tony Tata said in a news release. “The settlement agreement will allow NCDOT to provide a safe and reliable bridge for thousands of residents who rely on this lifeline to get to work, school, and healthcare and for millions of visitors who travel to the Outer Banks every year.”
Mike Charbonneau, a DOT deputy secretary, said construction should start on the new Oregon Inlet bridge by March or April.
At Rodanthe on the northern end of Hatteras Island, DOT has been considering whether to elevate N.C. 12 over a frequently washed-out stretch of the road or to take the highway over Pamlico Sound for a few miles. In the 32-page settlement, DOT promised to make the Pamlico Sound bridge its preferred choice. It will need final approval from state and federal environmental regulators.
A few miles north of Rodanthe, DOT had begun construction in early 2014 on a project to elevate 2.4 miles of N.C. 12 over what now is dry land on the southern end of Pea Island, where Hurricane Irene opened an inlet in 2011. This stretch will become water in future years as the barrier islands continue their natural westward migration.
That construction was suspended after the two sides began settlement talks last September, and DOT killed the Pea Island bridge project altogether Monday. Instead, it will take temporary steps to protect N.C. 12 there while promising to analyze an option – proposed by federal fish and wildlife officials in 2011, but never studied by DOT – to build a second Pamlico Sound bridge.
If environmental regulators approve the Pamlico Sound bridge at Rodanthe, and DOT endorses and wins approval for the bridge farther north at the Pea Island inlet, the two bridges will combine to take N.C. 12 over the water for about 7 miles – bypassing the most storm-vulnerable stretches of the Outer Banks highway.