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Wednesday, 08 February 2006 00:00

Cash: a better deal than a road

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There’s more than one way for the federal government to make up its promise to Swain County to rebuild the road it flooded 62 years ago — and that’s a $52 million payoff, an option with broad public support.

This contingency doesn’t oppose the road on environmental grounds necessarily. They just think the money would benefit the county more than a road through the park.

Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County commissioners, said the bulk of the money would be placed in a trust fund and only the interest used.

“It would be like Swain County winning the lottery every year without ever buying a ticket,” Jones said during a press conference before the public hearing. Jones cited education, health care, police protection, economic development and recreation as things the county could put the money toward.

“We are talking about $52 million that would help each and every person in Swain County,” Jones said.

Others argue that Swain County better take the money while the taking is good, because the road — and its $590 million price tag — is merely a fantasy.

“The truth is the road will not be built,” said Russell Breedlove. “Do you honestly think that the Congress of the United States will approve spending over half a billion dollars to benefit the people of Swain County?”

Breedlove cited the enormous cost of reconstruction along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, which will plague the nation’s budget for years and pose insurmountable competition for a limited pot of federal money.

Breedlove said Swain County would be “going hand to hand” with hurricane victims for money for a “road that goes nowhere.”

Of course, the $52 million sought for a cash settlement would come from Congress as well. So far, no one in Congress has volunteered to introduce such a bill.

“The political mobilization that would be required to get $52 million would be substantially less than getting $600 million,” said Leonard Winchester with Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County.

Even if money to build a road did come through, lawsuits to stop it are as sure as death and taxes.

“Look around at all these environmental groups,” Breedlove said. “They have vowed to go to court to stop this road. It doesn’t matter if they win. All they have to do is tie us up for years and years and years.”

Nearly every environmentalist at the hearing sported yellow “Settle Up” stickers showing support for a cash settlement. Although driven possibly by different motives, environmental speakers often devoted equal time to the benefits of a cash settlement as they did to drawbacks of a road.

“We are prepared to fight this for another 40 years, but we would prefer to see it settled,” said Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club in North Carolina. “The citizens of Swain County were promised something, and they deserve compensation. We are committed to using our resources to ensure that promise is fulfilled in a way that honors the Park and honors the people.”

While the option of a $52 million settlement has become part of the normal dialogue in the road debate, the origin of the dollar amount is a mystery to most. The amount equals the value of the road in 1944 plus interest and inflation.

The concept of a monetary settlement in lieu of the road cropped up once before in the 1980s.

At the public hearing, Clarence D. Bunn of Swain County recalled lobbying on behalf of a settlement back then and lamented being no further along today.

“Twenty-six years later, where are we?” Bunn asked. “We are still talking, still taking statements, and no action has been done.”

Claude Douthit, a lead promoter of the $52 million settlement proposal, said despite popular belief, the government is not held to rebuilding the road.

“I call upon you to make a common sense adjustment,” Douthit said.

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