Road Worrier: SELC says no to lattes, yes to lawsuit against NCDOT bridge

National Park Service rangers man a road block Thursday on the north end of the Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet. The N.C. DOT deemed the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet unsafe for vehicles suddenly on Tuesday and shut it down.
National Park Service rangers man a road block Thursday on the north end of the Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet. The N.C. DOT deemed the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet unsafe for vehicles suddenly on Tuesday and shut it down.

May it please the court of public opinion: The Southern Environmental Law Center concedes that its attorneys work in Chapel Hill offices that might – on certain summer occasions – be regarded as air-conditioned.

But as to the charge of latte-drinking: Not guilty.

“They probably drink Coca-Colas and coffee,” Tom Taft Sr. of Greenville, an attorney and former state senator who serves on the non-profit environmental law firm’s board of trustees, told the Road Worrier. “But not expensive coffee.”

Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory and his transportation secretary, Tony Tata, fired twin barrels of rhetorical birdshot at the Southern Environmental Law Center, whose lawsuit has stalled work on a 2011 contract to replace the 50-year-old Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks.

Citing erosion that has weakened support pilings for the 2.5-mile bridge that carries N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, Tata ordered the bridge closed for emergency repairs that could take up to three months.

McCrory stood on Bonner Bridge a few days later to rebuke the plaintiffs for delaying the new bridge with “a pseudo-environmental diversion” that threatens public safety and the coastal economy. He urged the environmental groups to drop their lawsuit, and he called on coastal residents to put pressure on North Carolinians who serve on the groups’ boards.

Tata launched a sharper, more personal attack. He denounced SELC lawyers as “ivory tower elitists” who “chuckle” as they file their lawsuits – cooled by their Chapel Hill air-conditioning and fueled by “their lattes and their contempt” for “the good people of the Outer Banks.”

Several SELC board members said Monday they will not drop the lawsuit.

“I think it’s well thought-out by our lawyers and our clients,” said Charlotte lawyer Marion A. Cowell Jr., a former state Board of Transportation member. “You’ve had these issues on N.C. 12 for years, and it’s time to go ahead and fix them properly rather than just keep doing the same thing.”

Two visions for bridge

DOT wants to build a new 2.8-mile bridge across Oregon Inlet. The SELC and its clients favor an old proposal for a 17-mile-long bridge that would carry N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, across Pamlico Sound and around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Hatteras Island. It would bypass vulnerable spots on N.C. 12 that frequently are washed out by ocean storms, including a 2.1-mile section to be elevated on its own bridge, through a $79.7 million contract awarded last week.

Judge Louise Flanagan of the U.S. Eastern District Court rejected the environmentalists’ arguments in September and said DOT could proceed with the new Oregon Inlet bridge.

But the SELC appealed. Lawyers for both sides were scrambling Monday to meet a deadline for filing their first round of briefs. Oral arguments are expected sometime next spring in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A parallel dispute is playing out at the state level before the Office of Administrative Hearings. The SELC and its clients seek to block a state environmental permit that would allow DOT to build the bridge. A hearing is expected next year before an administrative law judge.

Cowell said McCrory’s pressure on board members “suggests strong-arm tactics.” Taft called it “a classic effort to divert blame from the real culprit.”

DOT officials supported the 17-mile bridge a decade ago and were wrong, he said, to switch to the current plan for a short bridge.

“It’s still subject to the same environmental hazards from the oceans and sea level rise and storms,” Taft said. “We absolutely want a solution that lets the Outer Banks thrive, but we want a solution that makes sense.”

The SELC’s clients in the state and federal cases are Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. McCrory acknowledged that a senior member of his administration, Revenue Secretary Lyons Gray, serves as the only North Carolinian on the Defenders of Wildlife board. But he declared that Gray had been unaware of the Bonner Bridge lawsuit.

He said Gray would resign his seat unless he can persuade the organization to drop the case. Gray did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

McCrory could let his lawyers do the fighting and hope to see Flanagan’s favorable ruling upheld at the appellate court in Richmond, Va. But that didn’t work out well for DOT the last time a federal judge ruled in favor of DOT and against the SELC. The case involved the Monroe Bypass toll road in Union County, near Charlotte.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and forced DOT to start over on its environmental impact statement. Now the Monroe Bypass is in limbo.

Derb S. Carter Jr., who heads the SELC office in Chapel Hill, said the jibe about lattes was “among many inaccuracies” in last week’s broadsides from McCrory and Tata.

“I actually hate lattes, and drink black coffee,” Carter said.

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