BY CATHERINE KOZAK
For folks who’ve been around long enough, the ongoing lawsuit against the proposed north Rodanthe bridge might be just another frustrating chapter in the decades-long struggle to keep Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands’ only highway passable.
Back in the late 1990s, a mothballed N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) panel that had earlier studied the myriad transportation challenges on N.C. 12 was revived and renamed the Outer Banks Task Force. Its mission was to address persistent erosion and other road problems with a cooperative, multi-agency approach. Over the years, the task force spent a lot of time talking about “hot spots,” first identifying them, then, in meeting after meeting, trying to figure out what to do about them and how to get the money.
Funds kept disappearing in budgets. Studies would languish. Lawsuits were filed. Storms kept coming, making it even more urgent to fix the hot spots.
By now, we all know them: The canal zone south of the bridge, the old sandbag area on Pea Island, S-Curves north of Rodanthe, North Buxton, Hatteras village north of Elizabeth Avenue and on Ocracoke, stretching four miles south of the Hatteras ferry docks.
Two decades after the first revived task force meeting was held, the panel has since been absorbed into the N.C. 12 project merger team. A lawsuit against DOT from environmental groups has been settled, and the new Bonner Bridge is finally under construction. Beach nourishment is being planned in Buxton. And finally, there are plans underway to construct a $150 million bridge that would bypass troublesome S-Curves.
But a group of property owners in Rodanthe, known as Save Our Sound OBX, Inc., filed a lawsuit on Feb. 2 against NCDOT’s proposed 2.4-mile north Rodanthe bridge. The plaintiffs - Thomas Aschomoneit, Richard Ayella, David Hadley, Mark Haines, Jer Mehta and Glenn Stevens – contend that the “jug-handle” design that extends from the southern end of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge over the Pamlico Sound and which curves back into Rodanthe, would obstruct their property.
The group, which argues that NCDOT did not conduct the proper environmental review of the project, favors a short bridge within the right of way.
In early March, U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan granted a motion to intervene to environmental groups Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Refuge Association. Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, it’s the same trio of groups that had sued to stop the Bonner Bridge replacement project, in large part because of proposed bridging in Pea Island. But this time, the environmental groups are on the side of NCDOT, supporting the settlement all parties had reached and that is reflected by the jug-handle design.
Flanagan ruled on March 23 to stay indefinitely the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction – meaning the project will continue as planned for the time being. Plaintiffs agreed that there will be no request to lift the stay as long as there is no imminent “ground-disturbing” activity.
The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard at the end of the year.
“We welcome the Southern Environmental Law Center to join in the case,” the group said in a March 8 statement. “Save Our Sound OBX believes that SELC’s presence in the lawsuit will underscore why the environmental review process was illegal. Indeed, SELC’s tactics are at the heart of our complaint that the agencies failed to comply with NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act).”
Meanwhile, Rodanthe still maintains its dubious reputation as one of the hottest of N.C. 12’s hot spots. All of us who have to drive on Hatteras Island keep a close eye during and after storms on how conditions could affect the south edge of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the spot that surfers love and – only guessing here – that NCDOT doesn’t love so much.
Nor’easters, tropical storms, moon tides, spring tides, even big rainstorms have routinely flooded the road just south of S-Curves near Mirlo Beach. In storms, the ocean has punched through dunes and surged down driveways, transforming the road into a rushing river. Sound tide has also wreaked havoc on private property and the highway.
Coastal scientists say the area near S-Curves (S-Turns to surfers) has one of the highest rates of erosion on the Outer Banks. Dr. Stan Riggs, a veteran coastal geologist, blames an ancient river bed that directs waves to the beach. In the process, surfers get good wave riding, and the shoreline gets pounded.
In Nov. 2009, for instance, a nor’easter chewed up 800 feet of pavement, cutting off islanders for five days.
“The ocean was like something mad,” then-91-year-old Zenovah Hooper told me for a Virginian-Pilot article I had written. “It was just rolling and tumbling.”
During that same interview, Hooper said it was a waste of time and money to keep rebuilding the road. The only solution to the constant breaching of the highway and the ocean overwash, she declared, was to build a bridge from S-curves to the north end of the village.
The DOT had lined the Rodanthe hot spot with sandbags before that breach and has rebuilt them several times since. The beach has also been widened with sand to protect the road temporarily until the bridge is built.
Rick Shaftan, a resident of Corbina Drive in north Rodanthe, said he and his neighbors – some of whom are plaintiffs - believe that a bridge similar to the so-called “Lego bridge” by New Inlet would be a more environmentally friendly and a less intrusive choice to address the Rodanthe hotspot.
Some members of the group have lived on the island for 20 to 30 years, he added.
In their statement, Save Our Sound has called on the officials to “review why scarce federal highway dollars are being wasted on this project” when cheaper alternatives are available.
But Shaftan said people need not worry that the legal challenge will stop progress on the Bonner replacement.
The SELC has warned that the court regards the new bridge and NC 12 improvements as one project.
“They’re wrong about that, because they signed their rights away,” Shaftan said, referring to the settlement. “They can’t stop the Bonner Bridge.”
Fingers crossed. Between weather and lawsuits, lots of residents on Hatteras Island are holding their breath watching as the new Bonner is built, piling by piling.