Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Brunswick and Leland are one step removed from a seat at the Cape Fear Crossing planning table

Fifteen agencies get to weigh in on Cape Fear Crossing's ultimate path. Where does the local public's perspective, which will be represented by NCDOT and WMPO, fit in?

Cape Fear Crossing could relieve congestion on Cape Fear Memorial bridge and improve traffic and freight flow between Wilmington and Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Cape Fear Crossing could relieve congestion on Cape Fear Memorial bridge and improve traffic and freight flow between Wilmington and Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — With 15 state and federal agencies involved in planning the Cape Fear Crossing bridge, where do local governments land in the pecking order?

Turns out, for decisions like where the bridge lands, they’re one step removed.

Related: NCDOT can’t stop development in Cape Fear Crossing’s path. That could mean demolishing homes later

Federal funding for the Cape Fear Crossing is reliant on approval from 15 agencies (check out a full list in the next section of this article). Local governments, including Leland, Wilmington, Navassa, Belville, New Hanover County, and Brunswick County, are represented by just one seat at this figurative, and literal, table of representation: the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO).

Just one person — Mike Kozlosky, WMPO’s director — has pull in representing and communicating the region’s comments and concerns. (Even if multiple WMPO individuals physically sit in on the merger negotiations, each agency only gets one “voice” to communicate an agency’s viewpoint, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation).

That means Kozlosky, with one voice, must simultaneously represent six municipalities — with potentially competing interests.

The merger process

The Federal Highway Administration’s merger process is not democratic. There are no votes. No point-allotment will determine action. Fifteen federal and state agencies will come to a consensus on Cape Fear Crossing by simply talking.

“There’s not a hierarchy,” Chad Kimes, North Carolina Department of Transportation deputy division engineer, said. “But no one actually overrules everybody. That’s why it takes so long.”

At various steps of the merger process, all 15 agencies gather at a literal table to reach an agreement. Right now, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is getting ready for Concurrence Point Three: picking a route. Five routes set further south of the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge are up for consideration. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) ruled out a more northern route last month, citing adverse impacts to historic districts Wilmington.

“If there’s an agency that has a major concern, major heartburn …  they’re going to speak up and be loud about it,” Kimes said. “It’s knock-down, drag-out, but it is a really good process.”

There is, however, one group in charge. FHWA controls the talks and ultimately holds the purse — which will be used to fund the majority of an estimated $1 billion needed to get the project done. Ron Lucas, preconstruction and environmental engineer for the North Carolina Division of FHWA, said the merger process streamlines the amount of time typically required to obtain permits. 

“With the merger process, since they’re engaged all along, by the time we’ve finished the environmental documents and it’s time to apply for permits, the agencies are already engaged and they’ve already indicated — have pretty much given their blessing,” Lucas said.

So, who’s at the table?

Here are all of the agencies involved in the merger process, along with the primary permits needed for the project:

  • United States Army Corps of Engineers: Clean Water Act, Section 404 Certification
  • North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality: Clean Water Act, Section 401 Certification, Coastal Area Management Act
  • The Federal Highway Administration
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Species Act
  • National Marine Fisheries Service: Endangered Species Act
  • N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission
  • N. C. Department of Cultural Resources: Historic Preservation Act
  • U. S. Coast Guard: Bridge permit for navigable waters 
  • U. S. Forest Service
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • National Park Service
  • Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization
  • The Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation

Kimes said the permitting agencies — Army Corps, Department of Environmental Quality, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, etc. — control whether a route can move forward.

“They’re probably more critical than anybody,” Kimes said.

Compliance with Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which upholds water quality standards, is determined by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Once that criteria is met, the Army Corps may choose to issue Section 404 Certification, which regulates impacts to wetlands. Then there are state and federal historic resources, protected by the Historic Preservation Act. Endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker or bald eagle, protected by the Endangered Species Act, could also be in the bridge’s path.

“You have competing resources,” Lucas said. “it’s best to bring everybody to the table.”

Lucas said FHWA has incorporated the merger process since the 90s. “It’s developed good relationships between federal and state agencies,” he said. “We come to have a better understanding of what is required to get a permit from here. Over the years I’ve seen the fruits of this effort be able to advance projects forward.”

Coming up soon, after a draft impact statement is released, the merger team will come up with a Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) — practicable, meaning, affecting homes, economics, and people.

“We all come together and we agree to this alternative that’s the most balanced out of all the alternatives that say, everybody can live with, or is fine and is compliant with all these agencies,” Kimes said.

Brunswick, Leland’s role

Earlier in the planning process, several routes much closer to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge were ruled out, in part because of the footprint of the bridge would have gone through downtown Wilmington. These northern routes would have been significantly cheaper, but the faced opposition based on protecting Wilmington’s historic areas as well as the vocal opposition of Leland’s leaders.

This leaves land – and people – in Leland and surrounding Brunswick County subject to the greatest degree of impact from the remaining potential bridge routes. Relying on WMPO to represent them and NCDOT’s summary of a public comment period, does Leland have a say in the matter?

Pat Batleman, Leland’s mayor pro-tem WMPO’s vice chair, said she thinks the town does — now.

“If you had asked me that question a few years ago when [Walter] Futch was the mayor, I would have said no,” she said.

Now, Batleman said relevant agencies are in agreement. The town recognizes Cape Fear Crossing could be an economic driver in the state’s fastest-growing county. But several years ago, the town’s leadership rallied against the project altogether under former Leland Mayor Futch. Batleman said at the time she generally supported Futch’s efforts, while she was still a freshman on Leland’s Town Council.

“He was really following the feelings of the people at the time. They didn’t want it,” Batleman said.

Leaders exchanged personal jabs back-and-forth across the river. The project lulled. Batleman said Futch’s determination to protect the town’s interests lead to heated meetings on the topic.

“Because he insisted on being heard. And he felt [Wilmington and New Hanover County officials] were just dismissing him. And therefore, they were dismissing the Town of Leland as if it didn’t matter,” she said.

Because of Leland’s 2010-2012 opposition, including a denial of a transportation corridor in 2011 that could have cleared the way for the bridge, NCDOT started looking into southern routes. As vice-chair of WMPO, Batleman helped urge the group to adopt the southernmost options — (see map, below: Alternatives M and N) — in 2017.  Batleman’s, and by extension, Leland’s voice in the merger process is now clear through WMPO’s endorsement of the southernmost routes, she said.

“It seems that our new residents have a really good appreciation for economic development in the area. They’re not as opposed to the bridge because they know that it’s needed. However, when they see a corridor that comes right through their pristine development, that’s another story,” Batleman said.

The Federal Highway Administration cannot approve Alternative-V, the last remaining route in the Cape Fear Crossing project that would have included U.S. 17 enhancements and construction on Eagle Island. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)
The Federal Highway Administration cannot approve Alternative-V, the last remaining route in the Cape Fear Crossing project that would have included U.S. 17 enhancements and construction on Eagle Island. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Brunswick, legislators’ role

When asked whether Brunswick County’s seat at the table would get lost in the process, Frank Williams, Brunswick County’s Chairman, said, “I think we’ve made our voices heard loud and clear.”

As a WMPO board member, Williams also endorses Alternatives M and N.

By definition bypasses bypass things,” he said. “What I would not support is doing nothing. If we do nothing and 10 years pass, the next generation is going to be wondering who dropped the ball.”

Kimes, NCDOT’s deputy division engineer, said the merger process is not subject to any outside influence.

Still, NCDOT does hear from legislators and other outside agencies — for example, although the North Carolina Ports Authority is not part of the merger process, the bridge is being designed with the 215-foot vertical clearance requested by the port.

Representative Frank Iler said he’s in favor of Alternatives M and N. He said during his conversations with NCDOT, the department also prefers those routes. Of the project’s winners and losers, Iler said, “All travelers into and out of Wilmington will benefit,” Iler wrote in an email. “The only losers [is if] the project is over $1 billion, [it] may be the taxpayers who support the transportation construction budget with their fuel tax dollars.”

Danielle Smotkin, Congressman David Rouzer’s spokesperson, said Cape Fear Crossing is a local issue, and up to local officials. “Our job at the federal level is to make sure North Carolina receives as much federal funding as practicable so that more state projects can be undertaken,” Smotkin wrote in an email.

The public

At an upcoming public hearing in April, NCDOT will collect public comments (the date and location is still being determined). Comments will be logged, analyzed, and represented by NCDOT throughout the merger process.

So far, after a December 2018 newsletter and February meeting in Leland, NCDOT is already receiving plenty of input. A majority of the commenters, according to NCDOT design engineer Krista Kimmel, don’t want the project in their backyard.

“I would say 98 percent of them are the not in my backyard comments,” Kimmel said.

Because maps are general at this point, NCDOT cannot offer the public any more specific maps. “Right now we’re just basically putting a line on a piece of paper,” Kimes said.

Kimes said it’s refreshing to see so much input from the public with this project. However, comments presented at the upcoming public hearing will be of the most help to NCDOT, the department’s representatives said.

“I know it sounds complicated, but once you start seeing the tables of impacts, you start seeing a pretty clear choice that comes out of it,” Kimes said. “It just works itself out.”

NCDOT encourages area residents with public comments and concerns are encouraged to redirect their input to the soon-to-be-announced public hearing in April. If comments cannot be held until the April hearing, NCDOT would prefer comments be sent to capefear@ncdot.gov. Learn more about the project here.

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on Cape Fear Crossing. Catch up on part one, which covers why NCDOT can’t stop new development in Cape Fear Crossing’s path, here.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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