A planned toll road through Union County could get delayed again – or even killed – by plans for a massive future development that would rival Research Triangle Park in size.
The road is already in limbo: A federal appeals court in May criticized the N.C. Turnpike Authority over flaws in its assessment of how the Monroe Connector/Bypass would impact the environment.
Now the authority faces renewed criticism that could jeopardize the bypass, which would give Charlotteans a faster route to the beach but could also lead to sprawl.
Union County business leaders and public officials have long hoped the toll road would bring a 5,000-acre office and industrial park to Marshville. Called Project Legacy, the $2.3 billion development could bring 20,000 jobs and spur construction of thousands of homes.
But the Turnpike Authority omitted Project Legacy from an environmental impact report it submitted to the federal government – even though in separate documents highway officials touted Legacy as a benefit to building the bypass.
The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill believes withholding that information violated the 40-year-old National Environmental Protection Act.
The law center said state highway officials were worried the development would hurt water quality of streams and threaten the Carolina Heelsplitter Mussell, a federally endangered species.
That might have made it impossible to build the $725 million bypass, said Kym Hunter, an attorney with the law center.
“They knew there would be problems in getting their permits,” Hunter said.
The Turnpike Authority said that’s not true. Officials said their Environmental Impact Statement was correctly prepared and too much was unknown about Project Legacy to include it.
“We included all the information we had at the time in the appropriate locations,” said Greer Beaty, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority.
Beaty said highway engineers are reviewing Legacy as they try to revive the Monroe bypass. It’s possible it could be included in a new Environmental Impact Statement, which the appellate court ordered.
Meanwhile, another Turnpike Authority project, the Garden Parkway in Gaston County, has been dogged by similar claims. The law center has said in a lawsuit that its environmental impact study was also flawed.
The string of controversies has also raised questions about the role of the authority.
Premier business park
Project Legacy and the Monroe Connector/Bypass are both connected to the late Carroll Edwards, a Union businessman and former N.C. DOT board member.
Edwards, who championed the bypass more than a decade ago, also began buying a significant amount of land in what would be Legacy’s footprint, and along the bypass route, according to Union County property records.
Edwards resigned from the DOT board in 1997 after the Observer revealed he had improperly steered DOT projects to benefit himself or his businesses.
Edwards died in 2008, the same year Legacy was announced to the public. His family and his businesses still own nearly half the land inside Legacy’s footprint.
The plan for Project Legacy, according to a 2011 study sponsored by the N.C. DOT, would start with a 1,750-acre rail-truck transfer yard, along the CSX rail line that runs parallel to U.S. 74.
The intramodal yard – similar to one that Norfolk-Southern is building at Charlotte Douglas International Airport – would handle shipping containers from the ports of Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah, Ga.
After that part of the project is finished, the rest of Legacy would be developed into offices and industrial uses. Supporters say Legacy would be a “premier business park.”
Legacy boosters all say the project can’t be built without the Monroe Connector/Bypass.
Unless the toll road moves forward, Legacy is dead.
In spring 2010, the Turnpike Authority believed the Monroe Connector/Bypass was close to getting a green light for construction. Turnpike officials were trying to secure financing and they were finishing a federally required Environmental Impact Statement.
In March of that year, the Turnpike Authority tried to secure a low-interest loan of $350 million from the federal government to help build the bypass. In its application to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it suggested building the toll road could spur Project Legacy and its 20,000 jobs.
But two months later, when the Turnpike Authority submitted its detailed Environmental Impact Statement for the bypass, Project Legacy wasn’t included.
The law center argues that highway officials embraced Legacy when it suited its needs – and then discounted the development when it could have been a liability.
The Turnpike Authority said it was OK to cite Project Legacy in its loan application and exclude it from its Environmental Impact Statement. The reason, it said, is that Legacy isn’t “reasonably foreseeable” – language used by the federal government to guide transportation planners.
It notes the project doesn’t have a specific funding source or the correct industrial zoning. It also isn’t currently in Union County’s land-use plan, a document that guides how the county should grow.
In preparing its environmental impact statement, Turnpike Authority consultants met with a number of local governmental planners.
In an email to the Observer, authority engineer Jennifer Harris said “in those discussions, the Legacy project was not mentioned by any local planners or other officials.”
Hunter, of the law center, said emails and other documents show turnpike officials and the N.C. DOT were not only aware of Legacy, they had been involved for more than a year in planning for Legacy.
Among the concerns: Local transportation officials were planning for Legacy’s growth. They also were working to secure an exit from the bypass to the Legacy site.
In September 2010, the head of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, David Joyner, attended a meeting with CSX in Jacksonville, Fla., to try to convince the railroad to build an intramodal facility at the Legacy site.
Joyner’s role in the meeting, according to an email from the Union County Partnership for Progress obtained by the law center, was to be “wildly enthusiastic” about Project Legacy.
Transportation officials are still working to advance Legacy.
For instance, N.C. DOT executive Roberto Canales is part of a task force called “Project Iron Horse,” which is the name of a group working to bring the intramodal yard to the Legacy site. The group met as recently as this summer.
And the project is part of Gov. Bev Perdue’s Logistics Task Force report, released earlier this year. That report notes that Project Legacy has “tremendous potential.”
In an interview in Charlotte in October, N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti – who oversees turnpike projects – said there is a “legitimate difference of opinion” as to whether Legacy should have been included in a federal grant application and not the environmental study.
“These are separate laws, separate standards,” Conti said.
The N.C. DOT said its work on Project Legacy doesn’t mean that it’s “reasonably foreseeable,” and that local officials in Union County have the best knowledge of whether the development is viable.
Marshville Mayor Franklin Reese recently told the Observer that if the bypass is built, he thinks it’s “90 percent certain” that Legacy would follow.
The Union County Partnership for Progress, Legacy’s main booster, had produced a 3-inch-think binder of studies showing the need for more office and industrial space. The partnership has worked with Duke Energy’s economic development division on advancing Legacy, according to the group’s website.
Union County planning director Richard Black said he believes Project Legacy is a likely development, so long as the bypass is built. He said it should have been included in the county’s long-range land-use plan that was adapted in 2010. (When the turnpike authority was doing its impact study, Legacy was included in a draft version of the plan.)
Email showed concerns
The law center said turnpike officials worried for years that Project Legacy’s environmental impact could thwart bypass construction.
In summer 2009, Maurice Ewing, the former president of the Union Partnership for Progress, emailed turnpike authority engineer Steve DeWitt, who has since retired.
He thanked DeWitt for meeting about Legacy, and added: “ … as you requested, I will be guarded about how I refer to Legacy’s dependence on the bypass and I will counsel others to be cautious as well.”
Ewing said he didn’t remember what he was referring to when he emailed DeWitt.
DeWitt told a DOT spokesman he doesn’t remember the email.
Beaty, the DOT spokesman, said DeWitt said his memory of Legacy is that it was just a “vision.”