Groups Win Appeal on Bonner Bridge Permit

Reprinted from the Island Free Press

NAGS HEAD — A permit to build the replacement for a controversial bridge over Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks will likely be put on hold after a Wake County Superior Court judge apparently agreed recently to allow environmental groups to challenge the key state permit for the new bridge.

“The judge indicated that he would rule in favor of the SELC (the plaintiffs),” said Michele Walker, spokesperson for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “However, that’s not an official decision because we do not have the order.”

Once the judge’s signed order is received by the state, a formal stop work order on the project to replace the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge will be issued, she said.

“It’s kind of a moot point,” she said. “It was stayed pending the outcome of this hearing.”

Work was to begin on the replacement for the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge at the end of the year, though the state still needs federal permits. The CAMA permit challenge will also likely complicate the schedule. Photo: NCDOT

A spokesman for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association in the challenge, said the plaintiffs wouldn’t comment on the judge’s action until the order is signed.

It is not known whether the state attorney general’s office intends to appeal the ruling, Walker said. Without an appeal, the permit challenge would be heard by a judge in the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.  That judge’s ruling is final but can be reviewed in state Superior Court.

The 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge, over the notoriously wild waters of Oregon Inlet, was opened in 1963 and is about 20 years overdue for replacement. The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to replace the bridge and related approaches with a new 2.8-mile, two-lane bridge that will be built parallel and just to the west of the existing bridge. DOT awarded a $215 million contract for the new bridge in July 2011.

As the only link to Hatteras Island, many locals consider the span crucial to the tourism-dependent economy on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and to the more than 5,000 residents who live year-round on the islands.

After the state Coastal Resources Commission issued a major Coastal Area Management Act permit in September to allow the project to begin, the law center filed a third-party hearing request to appeal the case to an administrative law judge.

In his decision to deny the request, Robert Emory , the commission’s chairman, said in October that the law center  failed to meet the required criteria to challenge the permit, which had been issued after a 30-day public comment period and reviews by four federal and 10 state agencies.

In late November, the SELC filed a petition for judicial review of the CRC’s decision in Wake County Superior Court.  The case that was heard in late June.

The petitioners said that the high erosion rate at hot spots on Pea island at the bridge’s southern end, coupled with growing risks from sea-level rise and climate change, make the proposed bridge a costly, wasteful and impractical option. Instead, they favor a previously planned 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or, alternately, using high-speed ferries to transport vehicles and people.

The environmental groups also challenged the project’s federal environmental impact statement in federal court in New Bern. In that complaint, the groups charge that the Federal Highway Administration and DOT violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it decided to build the parallel bridge.  A decision in that case is expected soon.

The most recent estimate for completion of the Bonner Bridge replacement was 2016 or 2017, including demolition of the old bridge. Construction had been expected to begin early this year. But DOT still needs federal permits and easements from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

About the Author

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for The Virginian Pilot. Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.