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US 70 bypass around Havelock gets green light after lawsuit settled

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build a highway through a corner of Croatan National Forest, including rare longleaf pines like these. NCDOT and two environmental groups have settled a lawsuit that had sought to prevent construction through the forest.
The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to build a highway through a corner of Croatan National Forest, including rare longleaf pines like these. NCDOT and two environmental groups have settled a lawsuit that had sought to prevent construction through the forest.

Two environmental groups have agreed to drop their opposition to construction of a U.S. 70 bypass around Havelock in exchange for several steps by the N.C. Department of Transportation to protect rare longleaf pine habitat along the highway's path.

In an agreement announced Monday, NCDOT will give a conservation easement to protect land it will own along the 10.3-mile bypass, as well as provide $5.3 million to the N.C. Coastal Land Trust to create a fund to protect land in and around the Croatan National Forest. NCDOT also will establish a $2 million revolving loan fund that could be used to protect property elsewhere in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties.

NCDOT also pledges to use "sensitive construction practices" when it builds the four-lane divided highway through a section of the Croatan National Forest, south of Havelock away from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

In exchange, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center agreed to drop a lawsuit they filed in federal court seeking to stop the highway.

“This settlement demonstrates how the state can work together with conservation groups to set in place infrastructure in a more environmentally sensitive way,” Kym Hunter, an attorney at the law center, said in a statement. “The protections that will be set in place by this settlement will help preserve one of North Carolina’s most special places for decades to come.”

The bypass will allow drivers to avoid a congested section of U.S. 70 and several traffic lights in the town of Havelock, about 17 miles northwest of Morehead City. It's part of a long-term plan to turn U.S. 70 into Interstate 42 from Garner to Morehead City.

NCDOT had considered three options for the bypass. After environmental studies, the department's engineers thought they had found a good "middle ground" between the harm done to the Croatan forest and damage to prime farmland and streams. The department presented its choice to the public in late August 2015, and in December 2016 the Federal Highway Administration gave its blessing.

Less than two weeks later, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club. Rather than a good compromise, the lawsuit said, the route chosen by NCDOT would damage more wetlands, streams and wildlife habitat than the others it considered.

The lawsuit also named the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had both signed off on the project. In particular, the suit claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately consider what building a road through the forest would do to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that live there.

Foresters took advantage of favorable conditions to burn over 100 acres of undergrowth in Brookgreen Gardens on Friday. According to Mike Ammons, Director of Natural Areas, the blaze provides for better habitat for the endangered Red-cockaded wood

As part of the settlement, the two federal agencies have committed to maintaining woodpecker habitat between the bypass and the town of Havelock with the use of controlled burning, which longleaf pines need to reproduce and thrive. The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to carry out the burning.

“This is a mutually beneficial agreement where the transportation needs of citizens are met, while at the same time facilitating on-going conservation measures to protect a unique North Carolina habitat,” Chuck Watts, NCDOT's general counsel, said in a statement.

Construction of the Havelock bypass is expected to begin in early 2019 and take three years to complete. NCDOT estimates the road will cost $221 million to build. For more information, including a link to the full settlement agreement, go to www.ncdot.gov/projects/US70HavelockBypass/.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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