Released by Kym Hunter (Southern Environmental Law Center) and Will Scott (Yadkin Riverkeeper)
The Yadkin Riverkeeper, a nonprofit conservation group represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, on September 12, 2016, announced a million-dollar settlement with the North Carolina Departments of Transportation and Environmental Quality to conserve land and protect water quality in areas harmed by the Monroe Bypass, a nearly billion-dollar, 20-mile toll highway that will cut through rural Union County outside of Charlotte.
Under the settlement, NCDOT agreed to deposit $1 million with the Catawba Lands Conservancy who will use the money to purchase land and/or conservation easements in Union County to protect some of Union County’s beautiful natural spaces in perpetuity.
The settlement arose after the Riverkeeper, who focuses on water quality, challenged the legal sufficiency of the Clean Water Act permit for the bypass in 2015. Catawba Lands Conservancy was not a party to the litigation, but is acting as a neutral third party to identify and permanently protect suitable land.
“We regret that the unnecessary, expensive Monroe Bypass project is moving forward” said Will Scott, the Yadkin Riverkeeper. “At the same time, we are pleased to have secured this important funding from NCDOT which will be dedicated to protecting special, vulnerable lands in the bypass’s vicinity for decades to come.”
For nearly a decade, the Southern Environmental Law Center, alongside clients the Yadkin Riverkeeper, Clean Air Carolina, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation as well as local community groups, fought the advent of the destructive Monroe Bypass which will cost taxpayers over one billion dollars, destroy family-owned farmland, and worsen suburban sprawl in the region. In studying and approving the bypass, NCDOT ignored a decade of changing population trends and traffic patterns that made less environmentally harmful options, like upgrading existing roads, a more cost-effective and practical solution than the costly toll road.
In 2012, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals halted the project, ruling that NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration held back critical information from the public about the bypass and ordering the agencies to study the project’s impacts again. Earlier this year, however, the Court allowed the project to proceed, triggering the release of the settlement funds in the related permit challenge.
Although the bypass is ultimately moving forward, the settlement will help protect special corners of Union County from the sprawling development that the groups fear will follow the new mega-highway.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC’s team of almost 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. Their website is www.SouthernEnvironment.org.
Yadkin Riverkeeper’s mission is to respect, protect and improve the Yadkin Pee Dee River Basin through education, advocacy and action. It is aimed at creating a clean and healthy river that sustains life and is cherished by its people. To achieve this vision, it seeks to accomplish the following objectives: sustain a RIVERKEEPER® program, measurably improve water quality, reestablish native bio-diversity, preserve and enhance the forest canopy, bring legal action to enforce state and federal environmental laws, and teach and practice a “river ethic” of ecological respect to all ages. They are online at www.YadkinRiverkeeper.org.