HARKERS ISLAND — A legal petition over the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Harkers Island Bridge replacement project is going before an administrative law judge.
According to filings with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, Administrative Law Judge Melissa Lassiter was assigned May 18 to preside over a petition for a contested case filed by Larry and Elizabeth Baldwin and Hollis and Carol Batson against the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the state Coastal Resources Commission. The hearing is scheduled for the week beginning Monday, Sept. 21 in New Bern.
The project has been put on hold amid the litigation, and two Harkers Island officials expressed concerns over the delay and the potential effects it could have.
Harkers Island Fire Chief Chad Mann said the island needs a new access bridge.
“The drawbridge gets stuck (while raised) in the summertime during tourism season when its hot,” Chief Mann said. “Traffic has been backed up, and we’ve had to go to it and wet it down to get it closed. We usually do that at least two or three times each summer.”
Chief Mann said, so far, he’s been “pretty pleased” with the bridge project. However, he also said he and other Harkers Island residents want to be sure the beach strand near the new bridge site is maintained.
“A lot of local mothers take their kids to that beach,” Chief Mann said, “so we don’t want to lose that.”
Harkers Island Sanitary District Board Chairman and resident Clifford Rice said in an email that while he can’t comment on the merits of the petition, it’s “very disappointing these issues weren’t resolved before the bridge project got this far along.”
“The plans for the bridge were widely discussed, with a great deal of publicity and opportunities for public comment many months ago,” he said. “If there were concerns about the issues that are being raised in the recent filing, they should have been resolved in the beginning, instead of now delaying the project for an indeterminate time.”
Mr. Rice said anyone who crosses the bridge on a regular basis should have reason for concern about the timing of construction of its replacement. He said large sections of pavement are missing from the roadway, which will only get worse as heavy vehicles regularly cross.
He also said because the project involves relocating powerlines, the schedule is “further complicated” by the annual moratorium on in-water construction.
“The potential effects this will have on Harkers Island are many,” he said, “and none are positive. If the existing bridge fails, then the only way on or off the island would be by boat until some emergency repairs could be made.
“If the load carrying capacity of the bridge is reduced by continued deterioration, it could mean restricting traffic to a single lane with resulting delays in access…Time is of the essence in completing this project and all parties involved need to get their issues resolved and resume construction as soon as possible.”
Attorney Clark Wright of Davis, Hartman and Wright PLLC of New Bern filed the petition with the OAH May 12 on behalf of the Baldwins and Batsons. He said his clients have been seeking the hearing since the beginning of this civil case in July 2019.
“We’re now finally going to get an impartial hearing,” he said. “What our clients want is for NCDOT to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns.”
The Baldwins and Batsons own property on Harkers Island in the area where NCDOT is building the replacement bridge between Harkers Island and the mainland. The couples, in particular Mr. Baldwin, are concerned about the potential effects of the project, especially on the environment.
Mr. Baldwin serves as CRC vice chairperson. The commission makes the final decision on issuing major Coastal Area Management Act permits for coastal development projects.
Mr. Baldwin said Friday the, his wife and the Batsons aren’t opposed to replacing the bridge, but they have concerns about the design. He said they’re concerned the replacement bridge could result in wave action causing erosion on neighboring shorelines, an increase in shoaling in Jane’s Creek, stormwater runoff being sent into the creek instead of dispersed and utility lines taking up more linear footage than necessary.
“They (NCDOT) said if there’s problems, they’ll address it in the future,” Mr. Baldwin said.
N.C. Department of Justice Communications Director said in an email to the News-Times Carteret County Superior Civil Court Judge Charles Henry’s April 24 order to send the petition to an ALJ “isn’t a decision on the merits of the petitioners’ allegations.”
“To the contrary, the order specifically provides ‘neither the third party CAMA permit appeal statue nor any other relevant provisions of law or rule authorize either this court or respondent CRC to assess the ultimate weight or conclusions that may, in the future, be rendered as to petitioners’ alleged CAMA permit violations,’” Ms. Brewer said.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.