Environmentalists drop lawsuit, clear way for U.S. 70 corridor around city
An agreement has been reached between an environmental agency and the N.C. Department of Transportation that will allow the proposed U.S. 70 bypass around Havelock to move forward.
Under the agreement, the Sierra Club will dismiss a lawsuit that was filed in federal court in 2016 to protect the Croatan National Forest, and the bypass can now proceed once all permits are obtained. The Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife also were parties to the lawsuit.
The agreement assures that NCDOT will address project-related conservation concerns associated with the Croatan National Forest and provides resources for long-term protection of the forest, according to a release on the settlement.
Havelock Mayor Will Lewis said he was happy with the news of the settlement.
“We are very pleased that they have settled and the bypass can restart,” Lewis said Monday. “For us, the bypass represents a lot of potential for our long-term vision of Havelock. We will be able to grow south to the bypass. The future of Havelock is to grow in that direction.”
Lewis said he was also pleased that the settlement could be worked out between transportation and preserving the “natural treasures that make Eastern North Carolina so special.”
Allen Thomas, executive director of the N.C. Global TransPark, said the settlement was good news.
“Regional connectivity by interstate and controlled access highways is key to economic success,” Thomas said. “High-speed access for the ports to commercial centers in Lenoir County and the Global TransPark is a significant advantage when we are recruiting companies to the region. It is good news to see the cooperation regionally and will result in better connectivity.”
The 10.3-mile bypass will be four lanes divided by a median and will provide a high-speed alternative to using U.S. 70 through Havelock, which has numerous traffic signals at intersecting side streets. Construction is scheduled to start in early 2019 and be completed in 2022. The estimated cost of the project is $179 million.
Under the agreement, NCDOT will convey a conservation easement on land owned by the department adjacent to the bypass project and in the proclamation boundary of the Croatan National Forest to the N.C. Coastal Land Trust. The conservation easement will protect the land now and in the future, providing additional protection for the forest, which is a unique habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, according to the release.
The N.C. Council of State and N.C. Board of Transportation have approved conveyance of an easement, with final approval pending by the N.C. Coastal Land Trust Board of Directors.
Also as part of the settlement, NCDOT will provide $5.3 million to the N.C. Coastal Land Trust to create the Croatan Protection Fund, which will be used to protect land in and around the Croatan National Forest. The department will also provide $2 million to create a perpetual revolving loan fund to protect additional property for conservation purposes in Carteret, Jones and Craven counties. NCDOT has also agreed to to use sensitive construction practices as it builds the road to ensure minimal disturbance to key habitat and sensitive wildlife.
Prior to entering into the settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Federal Highway Administration exchanged letters clarifying their respective commitments to maintain important habitat between the bypass and Havelock through prescribed burning.
In addition, the U.S. Forest Service sent a letter to the Sierra Club setting out a commitment to conduct necessary prescribed burns and to provide the Sierra Club with information about these burns for the next 15 years.
Chuck Watts, general counsel for NCDOT, said the agreement was mutually beneficial, meeting transportation needs and facilitating on-going conservation measures to protect the Croatan National Forest.
Kym Hunter, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the settlement demonstrates how the state can work together with conservation groups in a more environmentally sensitive way.
“The protections that will be set in place by this settlement will help preserve one of North Carolina’s most special places for decades to come,” Hunter said in a statement.
Michael Murdoch, of the Croatan chapter of the Sierra Club, said the the Croatan National Forest is a forgotten treasure of the coast, with landscapes that are an important part of natural and state history.
“This settlement provides the means to ensure that North Carolina’s natural heritage is preserved for our children and their children,” Murdoch said.
Durwood Stephenson, business owner and director of Highway 70 Corridor Commission, agreed.
“This agreement is a win-win for the people of North Carolina,” he said in a statement. “The community first started planning for this project nearly 40 years ago, and now it will soon be a reality.”