Hearing scheduled on motel owners' claim that state responsible for Buxton erosion, flooding

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — A claim that blames the state Transportation Department for flooding that occurs along N.C. Highway 12 in Buxton on Hatteras Island is to get a hearing Wednesday.

Dave and Carol Dawson, who own the Cape Hatteras Motel in Buxton, are seeking $1 million in damages in their tort claim. They say in their filing that DOT has allowed dredging that is "starving the beaches in and near Buxton of sand and causing the beaches to erode."

In response, DOT says the Dawsons themselves contributed to the problems. "They have failed to mitigate their alleged damages by taking reasonable efforts to protect their property from sand and/or water damage," the DOT said.

DOT, through the attorney general's office, is seeking dismissal of the claim, saying it's barred by the statute of limitations. DOT also says the Dawsons shouldn't get any money because the storm damage was an act of God and nature.

An N.C. Industrial Commission hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at the Martin County Courthouse in Williamston.

The 42-mile-long Hatteras Island is part of the Outer Banks, a fragile chain of barrier islands that juts into the Atlantic that appears to have a bull's eye for hurricanes. In the past 12 years, Isabel and Irene have carved new inlets on the island that workers filled or built bridges to cover and Sandy ate up enough beach to require renourishment in the Rodanthe area.

The claim is one of many issues that face Hatteras Island residents, visitors and the state in dealing with N.C. 12 and the Bonner Bridge, which spans Oregon Inlet and is the only road from the island to the mainland. The state and environmentalists are in private negotiations outside court to solve their differences over a replacement for the bridge after years of lawsuits and court decisions.

Other issues include a temporary bridge built at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge after Hurricane sliced a new channel through the island in 2011 and a hot spot between Frisco and Hatteras where Hurricane Isabel created an inlet in 2003. Last year, 1.7 million cubic yards of sand were placed at an area of N.C. 12 in Rodanthe known as the S-curves to try to fight erosion.

In their claim, the Dawsons say the DOT has contracted with or authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge under the Bonner Bridge and that the dredging has interrupted the flow of sand on Hatteras Island from north to south.

The claim says DOT could have mitigated the damage by having the dredged material placed in a manner allowing it to move down the coast and renourish beaches. Instead, the claim states, the sand was placed in deep water.

Other actions by DOT have added to the flooding, the claim says. DOT "not only failed to protect the motel and the town of Buxton, but it actually redirected the force and flow of water into the motel property," the claim says. Storm waters have destroyed cars in the motel parking lot, severely damaged the motel and forced evacuation of the motel at times when a storm is affecting the rest of Hatteras Island only mildly, the claim says.

Such damage had occurred on 14 days in 2014 as of the filing of the claim in late November, the Dawsons said.

DOT denies that it's responsible for any beach erosion and says it neither contracted with nor authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge at the Bonner Bridge.

"It is denied that any alleged to Cape Hatteras Motel has been the result of any negligence on the part of NCDOT," the response says.

In addition to the department, the Dawsons also name current and former Transportation Secretaries Tony Tata and Gene Conti and Jerry Jennings, DOT regional engineer. DOT says the case against them should be dropped because the N.C. Industrial Commission doesn't have jurisdiction over tort claims filed against individuals.

Dare County is doing its own study of the highway at Buxton and hopes to be pumping sand for beach renourishment in 2016, said county manager Bobby Outten. The county doesn't want to wait until the road in Buxton is in as precarious a situation as the Rodanthe area was, he said.

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

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