CORRECTION: This article was updated at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, to correctly identify a part of the replacement bridge structure as a wind wall. The update also clarified Mr. Baldwin's relationship with the CRC.
HARKERS ISLAND — State officials and local residents have reached a settlement over the Harkers Island Bridge replacement project, with the state agreeing to additional environmental protection measures.
Davis, Hartman and Wright PLLC attorney Clark Wright announced the settlement Sept. 18. Mr. Wright represents N.C. Coastal Resources Commission Vice-Chairman Lawrence Baldwin, his wife Elizabeth and Hollis and Carol Batson, the property owners who filed a petition with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings over the N.C. Department of Transportation’s bridge replacement project, for which the CRC issued a Coastal Area Management Act permit despite objections from the Batsons and Baldwins.
Prior to a hearing before an administrative law judge scheduled for Monday, the parties met and Mr. Wright said they reached a settlement.
“The gist of the settlement will redesign and extend portions of the bulkhead (of the replacement bridge),” he said. “They (NCDOT) are going to extend a wing wall 150 feet to protect their property and our clients’ (property).”
A wing wall is a section of bulkhead that protects the base of a bridge.
NCDOT communications officer Lauren Haviland said NCDOT plans to resume utility relocation on the bridge project this fall.
“At this time, the project is moving forward and is scheduled to begin construction next spring,” she said.
Meanwhile, N.C. Division of Coastal Management public information officer Christy Simmons said the division “looks forward to working with the N.C. Department of Transportation on the Harkers Island bridge project now that that dispute has been settled.”
The division enforces rules and regulations for coastal development created by the CRC, as well as performs studies and inspection work for the commission.
Mr. Wright said NCDOT also agreed in the settlement to provide “a substantial amount” of funding to the N.C. Coastal Federation for a living shoreline project near Janes Creek. Living shorelines are a form of low impact development that use marsh plantings, oyster reefs and other measures to protect shorelines from erosion.
NCCF Executive Director Todd Miller said while the federation wasn’t involved in the legal proceedings, its “delighted to have the opportunity to help restore habitat and water quality that’s been impacted over the years by all the various land uses, including the highway, nearby.”
“The parties wanted enhancements to water quality and fisheries habitats that are very similar to many projects that the coastal federation has or is conducting,” Mr. Miller said. “We saw this as an opportunity to perform some of this work in this specific location.”
Work on the proposed living shoreline won’t begin until after the replacement bridge is finished. Mr. Miller said it should take 6 to 18 months to complete once the work starts.
Mr. Wright said while his clients “aren’t totally thrilled by the settlement,” it’s a significant commitment by the NCDOT.
“Our clients also didn’t enter into this lightly,” he said, “and the courts validated that. Ultimately, the process worked.”
In return for taking these measures, the Baldwins and Batsons agreed in the settlement to dismiss their petition with prejudice. Mr. Wright said this means they won’t be allowed to r-file their petition as long as state officials meet the agreed upon measures in the settlement.
Prior to taking the matter to the OAH, the Baldwins and Batsons attempted to appeal the issuing of a CAMA permit for the bridge replacement with the CRC, requesting a third-party hearing with NCDOT to address concerns about potential environmental effects the project might have. However, Mr. Wright said the CRC “dismissed it as frivolous.”
“Our clients feel vindicated that the concerns they’ve been trying to get addressed for five years are anything but frivolous,” he said. “It took a long time and a hard fight, but the Baldwins and Batsons are pleased the NCDOT is taking these significant measures.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.