Widen I-77 group: N.C. Senate plan could threaten tolls complaint

The group waging a legal battle over the $650 million plan to add toll lanes on Interstate 77 claims an N.C. Senate proposal would “scare off” lawyers from representing citizens groups that oppose state road projects.

The provision, included in a bill outlining changes to statewide environmental regulations, would take away judges’ discretion in awarding attorney’s fees in lawsuits that challenge the state’s “transportation improvements.” Instead, law firms would be made to pay the state’s legal fees if they lose a civil suit.

That would, in turn, dissuade attorneys from taking on citizen groups as clients, said Kurt Naas of Widen I-77, which filed a complaint against the N.C. Department of Transportation and the toll project’s developer, I-77 Mobility Partners, in January.

“They’re going after the lawyers themselves rather than the party that brings the suit,” Naas said on Tuesday.

Today, the courts exercise discretion in awarding attorney’s fees. But the bill would take the choice out of judges’ hands and, for citizen groups, “chill their enthusiasm to enforce their legal rights,” said Tommy Odom, a Charlotte eminent domain lawyer. He said the bill could potentially affect environmental groups that challenge other road projects.

“This is a direct aim at the WidenI77.org legal case and a gross abuse of legislative power by those elected to represent the public’s interests,” Naas said in a news release. “This proposed legislation is an intimidation tactic to hinder citizens from their right to due process of the law.”

The N.C. DOT and I-77 Mobility Partners declined to comment on Tuesday.

If signed into law, the bill won’t take effect until Sept. 1. It’s unlikely Widen I-77’s suit against the N.C. DOT will be resolved by then, Naas said.

“I presume if we were to do an appeal, we would be staring down the barrel of this new law,” he said. “There’s probably going to be an appeal by one side or the other.”

Widen I-77 alleges the toll project violates state law by converting a stretch of existing general purpose lane into a toll lane. The complaint also contends that state transportation officials collecting a percentage of toll revenues amounts to taxation without representation. The N.C. DOT has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

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