SELC says federal law wasn't followed

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday attempting to block construction of the U.S. 70 Havelock bypass.

The lawsuit calls the 10.3-mile, four-lane expressway around Havelock unneeded and costly. The suit also states that the $179 million project would cut through rare longleaf pine savanna in the Croatan National Forest that is habitat to threatened and endangered species, according to a release issued by the law center.

The 27-page suit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“The needless destruction of century old longleaf pines for an unnecessary and costly road is not only wrong, it’s illegal,” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Croatan was established decades ago to protect a landscape that is central to North Carolina’s history and provides irreplaceable habitat to the rare plants and animals that depend on the forest.”

On Dec. 16, the Federal Highway Administration announced its Record of Decision that essential gave final approval of the highway. The project was set to go out for construction bids early next year, with construction expected to start in the winter of 2017.

The lawsuit seeks to vacate the record of decision and threatens the state’s timeline of the project.

“This was expected. We knew it was coming and it is just a formality,” said Havelock Commissioner Danny Walsh, who is also a member of the U.S. 70 Corridor Commission.

Gisler said the said that the SELC had to wait to file the lawsuit until after the Record of Decision had been announced.

“We have told the DOT for years now that what they were proposing to do was not legal,” he said. “We have been very clear about the deficiencies in their analysis and the problems with the plan from the beginning. We have made no secret about the problems with what they have done.

“Under federal law, when you are looking at building a highway or a road project on public land, there is actually a law that says you can’t do it unless you have to, unless it is unavoidable and then you have to go through a process of evaluating alternatives and minimizing impacts, and here we raised that law to DOT and Federal Highways and they just declined to do that analysis at all, so they willfully ignored that federal law.”

Walsh said that he didn’t think the suit would get much traction in stopping the highway’s construction.

“A lot of people have done a lot of work to make sure that this thing was done properly so that everyone, including the woodpeckers and the bushes and the trees and all, were all taken care of in the best way that they could be,” said Walsh. “This is just progress. It’s required for the future.”

According to Gisler, the DOT did not do an adequate analysis concerning improvements to the existing U.S. 70.

“The analysis was set up in a way that they would only end up with the one alternative. They didn’t do an objective analysis of all the alternatives using the same conditions,” said Gisler.

“The important thing here is that this part of the forest is one of the prime examples still of what used to be a very common landscape in the coastal plain, which is the longleaf pine savannas, so there are parts of the forest that would be destroyed with the proposed bypass and that have intact, 100-year-old longleaf pine savannas that have good ground cover and are in good condition and that provide habitat for species like the red-cockaded woodpecker,” said Gisler.

Michael Murdoch, chair of the Croatan Group of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter, said there are other options.

“The Havelock bypass is an unnecessary project that would damage and destroy ecologically important lands within the Croatan National Forest,” he said in a statement. “Given the availability of better alternatives, such as far less costly and far less destructive upgrades to the existing road, the bypass must not be built.”

Gisler said the suit could possibly prevent the DOT from obtaining a necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the highway.

“We hope to move quickly with this litigation and hope to get a decision from the court as soon as we can,” he said. “We think that that decision will be that they have to go back and do the analysis the way the law requires.”

The project was first proposed in 1977 as part of Havelock’s road plan and became part of state highway plans in the early 1980s.

“My desire is that everything is settled in a reasonable way by all parties and we can go ahead and proceed with this project,” said Walsh.

Walsh said the bypass is “the best thing that could ever happen” to Eastern North Carolina, citing expansion of the North Carolina Port at Morehead City as chief reason for the planned roadway.

According to Gisler, the new road would save only one to eight minutes of travel time for anyone headed to the coast through Havelock. The bypass is also expected to reduce traffic in Havelock.

The bypass will run from just west of the Tucker Creek and Hickman Hills areas to the south of the city, circling around Greenfield Heights Boulevard to a crossing of Lake Road, where an interchange will be built. The highway will continue to loop back into the existing U.S. 70 just east of Havelock.