Local News

Beach-driving lawsuit reaches proposed settlement

Posted April 11, 2008 8:04 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2008 6:01 p.m. EDT

— The parties in a lawsuit over beach driving along Cape Hatteras have agreed in principle to a settlement, lawyers for Defenders of Wildlife announced Friday evening.

Details of the settlement – known as a proposed consent decree – can not be disclosed until a court hearing. Lawyers for both sides jointly filed a motion in U.S. District Court to continue the case until Wednesday, April 16.

Attorneys for the environmental groups that sued the government said they aim to balance environmental concerns and recreational access along the federally protected coastline, including the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Bodie and Ocracoke islands.

"We will work to ensure that the natural resources and public enjoyment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore move forward hand in hand," said Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Commissioners for Dare and Hyde counties and members of a Cape Hatteras National Seashore board must vote on the proposed settlement.

Earlier Friday, Dare public-relations officials said talks had stalled with the plaintiffs – the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.

"This is the best of all possible outcomes. I am very pleased all parties have reached an agreement in principle," Mike Murray, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said.

Dare's public-relations department said the sides had discussed standards for buffer zones around nesting birds that would allow opportunities for beach driving.

"We remain committed to preserving the wildlife along the seashore while allowing for continued recreational access to this unique natural area," Jason Ryland, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said of the proposed settlement.

The lawsuit, filed in October 2007, claimed the National Park Service's interim management plan did not adequately protect nesting piping plovers and sea turtles.

Supporters of beach driving have argued that a ban or major restrictions could severely damage the area's economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. They also said it could cripple a part of local culture that has been popular since the 1930s.

Up to 2,000 vehicles a day can traverse the Outer Banks beaches.

At a hearing in Raleigh last Friday, U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle continued the case after both sides said they were working on a settlement. The plaintiffs had sought a preliminary injunction to ban beach driving while the lawsuit proceeds.

In July 2007, Boyle ruled that the NPS' lack of a long-term management plan technically made beach driving illegal. In response, the NPS formed an interim plan, against which the lawsuit was filed.