LELAND — The Town of Leland has asked the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to clean up its roadways — a job that was previously contracted but that hasn’t been done in six months.
To address the issue, NCDOT has taken steps to take on the job with its own crews while the department remains financially constrained.
Add littered roadways to the growing list of local issues triggered by NCDOT’s ongoing cash problems, which include a road project in Shallotte for which the public could get double-billed, and dozens of area projects that have been pushed back.
Since October 2019, NCDOT has not used contracted crews to pick up roadside litter — not just in Leland, but statewide. Ongoing financial issues forced the department to cut back on maintenance efforts, which includes litter pickup, according to NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland.
Leland steps up
As trash collected along well-traveled roadways in the Leland area, concerned residents began to pressure Town Council. For the issues identified, like litter along state-maintained U.S. Highway 17, 74-76 and N.C. 133, the town has little room to act.
“It’s kind of a hands-tied situation. We notice it, our residents are concerned, but they’re not our roadways,” Hilary Snow, Leland’s spokesperson said. The town put out a FAQ page to help redirect concerned residents to the right resources. Still, residents shared sentiments of disgust and embarrassment of roadside litter, urging Council to act.
Litter was among other hot topics the town tackled during its first town hall-style meeting held Tuesday. There, staff shared the town was planning to coordinate for the first time with NCDOT’s Litter Sweep, set for Saturday, April 18.
In a March 2 letter to NCDOT, Leland told the department the roadside trash has already caused some potential homebuyers to look elsewhere. “We fear that our littered roads could become a hindrance to economic development and lead to a reduction in the flow of tourism and real estate dollars into our state,” the letter states.
Acknowledging NCDOT’s cash flow problems, the letter states maintaining roadway appearance shouldn’t be disregarded while making tough budget decisions.
NCDOT cash problems
As of NCDOT’s mandated cash watch report released Friday, the department is about 3.2% away from its statutory cash floor minimum, $292 million. The department is nearing its cash floor in part due to years of storm-related federal reimbursements that remain unpaid, costing NCDOT three times more than what it previously averaged, with $222 million in expenses over the past four hurricanes. But the biggest hit has come from the unbudgeted Map Act settlements to property owners whose land was taken unconstitutionally, a 2016 N.C. Supreme Court case ruled.
As of August 2019, total liabilities related to the suits totaled $311 million. Since NCDOT started reporting its cash weekly beginning Nov. 18, 2019, the department has paid out an additional $27 million.
NCDOT avoided even more serious financial issues when the General Assembly bailed out the department mid-November 2019, authorizing it to borrow $100 million for road projects, released debt on an earlier $90 million loan, and added another $100 million for storm-related expenses.
Despite the constraints, division three is working to fill in how it can.
In a March 5 letter in response, NCDOT’s division three engineer, Chad Kimes, explained the department’s crews have been picking up litter themselves. division three recently starting a weekly litter pickup on major routes, Kimes said, and plans to double its crew every other week with maintenance staff.
Local movement, statewide problem
Leland resident Nancy Celli helped form Clean Up Brunswick (CUB), formerly the Greater Leland Beautification Coalition, mid-December 2019. Her advocacy efforts have garnered the group more than 200 members in the months since, Celli said.
The group’s main goals include stricter punishments for litterers, a three-pronged approach to public education, increase enforcement of existing litter laws, and for CUB to formally adopt-a-highway.
“This is a statewide problem,” Celli said. In concert with local efforts, Celli hopes to capture a statewide audience through NC LITTER FREE, another new group she formed.
The biggest eyesores include sofas, recliners, tables, chairs, mattresses, and other unwanted items along right-of-ways. “Right in front of the developments these appliances are showing up,” she said.
North Carolina’s anti-littering law, § 14-399, means those who “intentionally or recklessly” litter fewer than 15 pounds of trash are guilty of a class 3 misdemeanor, must pay a fine and serve between eight and 24 hours of community service. First-time offenders are offered waivers but still must pay a $250 fine for intentional littering plus $50 for unintentional littering.
Celli points to NCDOT’s most recent statewide litter recap, which states there were 3,028 litter charges and 948 convictions in 2018. “That is less than one-tenth of one percent of the population of North Carolina,” she said. “I’m not satisfied with the enforcement.”
Last year, Brunswick County Sherriff’s Office responded to four reports of littering and six reports of illegal dumping, according to spokesperson Emily Flax.
“Any crime is a priority issue. If it concerns our community, it concerns us. If we get a report for littering, we certainly follow up,” Flax wrote in an email.
Last weekend, Celli said she saw someone step into the highway while picking up litter. It’s not wise, or safe, to pick up trash without reflective gear on highways. That’s why Celli is trying to pursue the Adopt-a-Highway option with CUB. “We feel it’s safer than doing it now and then and here and there. Because now and then and here and there can be dangerous.”
NCDOT’s highway programs provide organized training, support, and oversight for volunteers who wish to assist. “We appreciate the enthusiasm and commitment to keeping Leland litter-free, we would rather they seek an organized outlet for doing this,” Snow said.
Leland asks interested participants to contact Laurie White, Senior Administrative Assistant with the Parks and Recreation Department, before attending. White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 408-3092.
What: Leland Litter Sweep
When: Saturday, April 18
Where: Start at Leland Town Hall at 8 a.m. Groups assisted by Leland staff members will be assigned specific road sections. Roadside pickup will last through 1 p.m. followed lunch at Town Hall.
Read Leland’s letter to NCDOT:
Read NCDOT’s letter to Leland:
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at email@example.com