Legal Issues When Managing Public Roads Affected by Sea Level Rise: North Carolina

23 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2019

See all articles by Heather Payne

Heather Payne

Seton Hall University - School of Law

Ian Brown

University of North Carolina School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2019


Sea level rise is a current and growing threat to roads in coastal areas. Although scientific projections have inherent uncertainty, North Carolina is likely to face up to four feet of sea level rise before the end of the century. With the rising waters and extended storm surges comes the inundation and destruction of roads, water treatment facilities, drainage infrastructure, and other critical governmental services. In the near term, low-lying coastal communities will have to make difficult choices about when, where, and how to selectively relocate from the advancing sea.

As roads are subjected to repeated storm and erosive action, the costs of maintaining or rebuilding these stretches of road can become untenable. State and local government budgets are finite. Formally abandoning a road may provide an escape from financially impracticable maintenance costs, but road closure comes with its own potential liabilities. The issue presents a difficult balancing act between the financial limits of local governments and the property rights of individuals who may rely on the road to access their property.

This white paper explains the legal duties of municipalities and counties with respect to maintenance of roads in North Carolina. It examines the authority of local governments to abandon roads in light of the unique challenges posed by a changing climate. The paper further considers the potential liabilities that abandoning a road may incur, as well as some defenses available to a municipality or county. This paper is not intended to provide legal advice. Rather, it is a policy paper designed to highlight potential legal questions that are likely to arise in the context of community adaptation to sea level rise. Communities facing such questions should consult with their legal counsel when considering adaptation actions.

Keywords: sea level rise, roads, government duties, abandonment, takings, adaptation

JEL Classification: K32, L98, R42, R52

Suggested Citation

Payne, Heather and Brown, Ian, Legal Issues When Managing Public Roads Affected by Sea Level Rise: North Carolina (June 1, 2019). Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Heather Payne (Contact Author)

Seton Hall University - School of Law ( email )

One Newark Center
Newark, NJ 07102-5210
United States

Ian Brown

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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