A permit to build the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement is almost certainly going to be put on hold indefinitely after a recent decision in Wake County Superior Court agreeing to a review of environmental groups’ challenge to construction of the project over Oregon Inlet.
After the state Coastal Resources Commission issued a major CAMA permit in September of last year to allow the project to begin, the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, filed a third-party hearing request to appeal the case to an administrative law judge.
The CRC denied the request on Oct. 23.
In late November, the SELC filed a petition for judicial review of the CRC’s decision in Wake County Superior Court. That is the case that was heard in late June.
“The judge indicated that he would rule in favor of the SELC,” said Michele Walker, spokesperson for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “However, that’s not an official decision because we do not have the order.”
Once the signed order from the judge is received by the state, a formal stop work order on the project will be issued, she said.
But Walker said the project has been essentially on hold for months.
“It’s kind of a moot point,” she said. “It was stayed pending the outcome of this hearing.”
Walker said that the expectation is that the order will be finalized this week, but the recent opening of the county’s new courthouse may have created a delay in the process.
It is not known whether the state attorney general’s office intends to appeal the recent ruling, she said, or allow the case to go to the Administrative Office of the Courts, giving the SELC the opportunity to challenge the CAMA permit decision in a hearing.
In his decision to deny SELC’s request for the hearing, CRC chairman Robert Emory said that the SELC failed to meet the required criteria to challenge the permit, which had been issued after a 30-day public comment period and reviews by four federal and 10 state agencies.
A decision on a separate legal action on the project by the environmental groups is expected any day now from a federal court in New Bern.
U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan has been asked to rule on a challenge to the project’s environmental impact statement.
Bobby Outten, Dare County manager and county attorney, said that whatever the federal decision is, it could potentially influence a state case, but many variables come into play depending on the legal questions in each case.
The most recent estimate for completion of the Bonner Bridge replacement was 2016 or 2017, including demolition of the old bridge. Construction had been expected to begin early this year.