Enviro community responds to cheap shot attacks over Bonner Bridge

As noted in this space last week, conservative state officials have been acting more like loud-mouthed radio squawkers than public leaders in recent days when it comes to the controversy over the decaying Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks.

This morning’s N.C. League of Conservation Voters newsletter has a response worth reading:

“What do you do when you’re stalled in the courts on a major transportation project? If you’re Governor Pat McCrory, you launch a personal attack against the citizen conservation group that’s challenging you.

It’s a ploy straight out of the old anti-environmental playbook. When poor planning by a government agency or greed by a polluter leaves a community in a fix, then blame the environmentalists who’ve been telling you about the problem (and how to fix it) for years. Tell the community facing the problem that it’s the nasty environmentalists (not you!) who have put them there–and try to win by intimidation what you can’t achieve by law.

In this case, the debate is over the replacement of the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. A battle in the press and now the courts has raged for years over whether to replace the bridge with another in essentially the same place, or to install a much longer bridge in the sound. The longer bridge would bypass the areas most immediately threatened by the shifting inlet sands and by repeated storm washouts of Highway 12 along narrow northern Hatteras Island. Of special environmental significance, it would also bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge at the northern end of the island.

State and local officials and some tourism interests have fought that alternative because it would cost much more to build, and because it would make the northern-most beach areas less easily accessed by off-road vehicles. Two years ago, the state Dept. of Transportation approved a contract to rebuild the shorter bridge. Two citizen conservation groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), filed a challenge in federal court, asserting that the state’s course of action unnecessarily threatened the wildlife refuge and ignored the more logical longer option. So far, just another legitimate public policy debate.

Last week, however, the McCrory Administration seized news of the temporary emergency closure of Bonner Bridge due to structural issues and erosion around the base of some supports to launch a public attack. State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata pointed blame toward the SELC: ‘These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill. And they do so with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access.’ More here.

McCrory himself piled in a press conference Friday, in which he blamed SELC for delays in replacing the bridge, called them “irresponsible”, and said he would send letters to SELC’s directors asking them to drop their legal challenge. A prepared statement by NC legislative leaders Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) howled that SELC’s “frivolous lawsuit is only the latest episode in their scheme to agitate the left and raise funds for an extreme, fringe agenda–this time, at the expense of Northeastern North Carolina’s economy.” In a Nags Head radio station interview, McCrory went further over the top: “They’re [SELC] putting people in jeopardy. They’re putting jobs in jeopardy.” More here.

That odor wafting off this display of public fulmination is the scent of political opportunism: Take a genuine hardship like another temporary bridge closure of the only road route onto an island, and use it in a flagrant effort to create a ‘boogeyman’ in advance of the 2014 election cycle. SELC fired back Friday, calling the comments by McCrory and crew ‘irresponsible personal attacks’ and pointing to political leaders’ decision to pursue a flawed solution as the root of the problem. More here.

Read SELC’s statement on the matter here.

Sources within SELC report that its North Carolina and Virginia offices have received ‘abusive and threatening’ calls following the attacks, but note that the organization and its clients have no intent of backing down. At this point, it appears that the episode is scrolling out as the latest attack by the current state administration and legislative leadership on environmental protection and those who advocate for it.”



  1. Fred Kinzel

    December 9, 2013 at 11:32 am

    ” try to win by intimidation what you can’t achieve by law ” , I guess you are not aware of Judge Flanigan’s ruling on the bridge replacement. Perhaps you should learn all the facts before making such a statement.

  2. Gene Hoglan

    December 9, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    The initial construction schedule wasn’t set to start until the beginning of this year, with a planned 2016 completion date. The bridge would still have been closed even if the SELC never existed.

    These idiots are pandering to the rubes by blaming something other than the ocean and the numerous groups, none of which were environmentalists by the way, who dithered on building the new bridge for the past 20 years.

  3. Mike D.

    December 10, 2013 at 7:48 am

    “The bridge would still have been closed even if the SELC never existed.”

    This is a false statement. If SELC had never existed the bridge would have been constructed over 20 years ago. All of the new bridge delays are the result of the endless lawsuits by the SELC. The people of Hatteras are suffering due to their actions and the blame has been placed exactly where it belongs.

  4. Gene Hoglan

    December 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Mike: The SELC didn’t get involved with the bridge until 2011. The 2003 bridge plan was killed by the Dare County Commissioners, Mark Basnight, et. al. refusing to play ball with the state.

    I sat in meetings with Terry Wheeler and others back in the 90s when they were looking at running a bridge from Wanchese down to Rodanthe. The environmentalists had no clue what was going on back then. It was absentee rental house and shop owners complaining that years of construction right by town would scare off the tourists.

  5. Gene Hoglan

    December 10, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    The larger issue is the current level of development on Hatteras Island isn’t sustainable for more than a few decades at best. Eventually there’ll be a peak cost point for beach nourishment and highway repairs for which the county and municipalities can’t levy new taxes and the state/feds won’t fund.

    This has been known for years now, yet people have taken upon themselves to stick their heads in the sand as it were and hope that somehow the basic function of barrier islands, which are constantly moving entities, will magically change overnight. NPS erecting sand fences made it possible for larger construction, but like Portsmouth Island, eventually it’ll have to be abandoned or at best scaled down dramatically to pre-1950s level development- mainly single family houses on the sound side.

  6. HM

    December 12, 2013 at 11:26 am

    NCDOT is so full of it. Any new bridge built where Bonner is just going to have the same problems. The very ground is washing away from underneath it. The long bridge would be safer and more reliable in the long run.

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