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Bridge ruling praised, but legal road ahead is likely to be long
By Rob Morris on September 18, 2013

State and local officials gathered at Oregon Inlet Tuesday to give thanks for a recent federal court ruling on a replacement for the Bonner Bridge, but more legal conflicts lie ahead before any concrete can be poured.

The 42-page summary judgment by U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan dismissing a challenge from the Southern Environmental Law Center was described by highway officials as a significant step forward.

But Shelley Blake, general counsel for the North Carolina Department of Highways, said an administrative ruling on a state Coastal Area Management Act permit for the project is still many months off.

The SELC filed a petition against the state’s decision to issue the CAMA permit to the NCDOT. The SELC represents Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is the defendant, and the Department of Highways plans to join the case as an intervener.

Blake said that, in general, filing evidence in such cases takes six to nine months. The case was sent to the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings by a state Superior Court judge. If the office rules against the environmental groups, it could go back to state Superior Court.

In a gathering clearly intended as a show of unity, the area’s entire legislative delegation joined state Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata, Chief Deputy Secretary of Operations Jim Trogdon and county officials to praise the ruling and thank those involved in defending the state and supporting the project.

The bridge is 50 years old and often needs repairs. (Rob Morris)
The bridge is 50 years old and often needs repairs. (Rob Morris)
They stood on a beach near the rock groin at the inlet’s south side on a clear, blustery afternoon. A man cast a bait net in the water behind them while a lone boat slid across the inlet parallel to the bridge.

“We know that there’s more work to do,” Tata said. “We have the state lawsuit that we’ve got to intervene in with DENR and we’ll move forward on that. And then they can always appeal within the next 60 days, and we’ll be prepared for that as well.”

Tata called the ruling affirmation that the state seeks to balance public needs with environmental concerns.

“This bridge is 50 years old,” Tata said. “It’s on borrowed time, as we said before, and frankly this decision gets us one step closer.”

Trogden said no physical construction could start until the legal matters are resolved, although engineering and design work will continue. He said an inflation factor would not affect the overall cost of the $215 million contract for about a year.

The SELC has said that building the bridge first while developing a plan incrementally to maintain washout-prone N.C. 12 is unreliable, will end up costing more than expected and is illegal. It says the project is also a threat to wildlife and waterfowl.

A contract for the project was awarded in August of 2011 after almost two decades of planning, during which the state says it has paid more than $56 million to repair the old span.

The original timetable was for work to start at the beginning of this year.

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