Settlement maintains access to Hatteras and protects refuge

North Carolina's Highway 12, the only access road for Hatteras Island, washes out more and more frequently as sands shift and sea levels rise. A settlement announced today allows sections of the highway to be moved away from areas prone to erosion. (© iStock)

For many years, North Carolina has struggled to deal with increasing transportation challenges on the tourist mecca and wildlife haven of the Outer Banks. Primary among them is the frequency with which storms and tides disrupt N.C. Highway 12, the only access route to and from Hatteras Island via the outdated Bonner Bridge. The road is often washed out as sea level rises, and extreme weather has only made the problem worse. The state’s efforts to keep the old route operational were degrading the once-pristine Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

On behalf of our clients Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center negotiated an agreement with state and federal authorities to replace the aging Bonner Bridge, deal with the most vulnerable portions of N.C. 12, and preserve the refuge. The settlement is a major step forward for everyone who treasures Hatteras Island.

After more than a decade of SELC advocacy, the parties reached agreement after an August 2014 court ruling. The federal Court of Appeals acknowledged that the bridge is “essentially worthless” without the 13-mile stretch of highway that passes through the narrow wildlife refuge before arriving at the inhabited portions of Hatteras Island, and that any plan for maintaining the route must take that into account while avoiding harm to the refuge.

Previously, the state spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars rebuilding the road in place each time it washed away. Authorities seemed intent on ignoring the rising ocean even as highway segments and houses washed out to sea.

Now, however, the North Carolina Department of Transportation will promote options to move the most vulnerable parts of the highway out of the wildlife refuge and onto permanent bridging in Pamlico Sound, where it can better withstand increasing storms and rising seas. The settlement outlines a scope of work that will begin with the replacement of Bonner Bridge and termination of construction of a new permanent bridge within the wildlife refuge. The next phase will include construction of a bridge near Rodanthe to bypass eroding beaches and exploration of opportunities to reroute additional miles of road off the most dynamic parts of the island and through Pamlico Sound. The map below illustrates options made possible under the agreement.

Ultimately the settlement validates our longstanding belief that responsible planning is needed along our coasts given the challenges of storms, the shifting barrier islands sands, and sea level. Our best chance to protect life on Hatteras is to acknowledge and plan for these dynamics.

This solution not only will replace the aging Bonner Bridge; it will help preserve safe, reliable access to Hatteras Island, and it will protect Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Read The News & Observer editorial on the agreement here: Two sides meet in middle on Bonner Bridge deal.

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