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Wednesday, 31 August 2016 13:45

Road to Nowhere lawsuit stalled for another month

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It’s been about five months since Swain County filed a lawsuit against the federal government for $38.2 million, and commissioners are still waiting for a response. 

Swain County had been trying for years to get the National Park Service to live up to a promise it made 70 years ago — to rebuild the North Shore Road that was destroyed when Fontana Dam was constructed in 1940. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, county officials and the NPS agreed to a $52 million cash settlement in 2010 hoping to put the issue behind them once and for all. The settlement was supposed to be paid out in annual increments until 2020, but to date Swain County has only received one payment of $12.8 million. 

The board of commissioners unanimously agreed in March to sue the U.S. Department of Interior in a last-ditch effort to get the money before the settlement deal expires in four years. 

The Department of Interior had 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, but Swain County Manager Kevin King said some extensions have delayed the process. He told commissioners last week that the Department of Justice filed for a 60-day extension on May 29.

“We didn’t block the extension because it’s fairly customary,” King said. 

However, he said he denied the DOJ’s recent request for another 60-day extension. When county attorney Kim Carpenter went to court last week, a judge granted the DOJ a 30-day extension. 

King said that is the last extension the DOJ will receive, which means it has to respond to the lawsuit by Sept. 29 at the latest. 

“They’ll likely file a motion to dismiss and Kim (Carpenter) will have to answer that motion,” King said. 

Commissioners have said a lawsuit was the county’s only remaining option for trying to get the settlement money. Since the settlement was reached in 2010 and the first payment was made, it’s been an unending battle with the bureaucracy in Washington. While former U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a Swain County native, was instrumental in getting the settlement deal, current U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, hasn’t been successful in getting the Department of Interior to make any further payments.

While the language and the intent of the settlement agreement seems crystal clear to Meadows, he said the issue has gotten caught up in an “earmark ban” in Washington. Even though this is more of a contractual agreement, everyone in politics knows earmarked projects have “pet project” written all over them and they don’t have a chance of getting through.

Even when the installment payment for the North Shore Road was included in the National Park Service’s budget in 2012, the department claimed it didn’t have the authority to release the funds and asked for additional authorization from Congress.

Swain County has been getting the run-around since that time. The National Park Service didn’t ask for additional authorization on any other items outlined in its budget. The funding sat there so long that Congress rescinded the allocation because it was unspent and for the last several years the funding hasn’t even made it into the budget. 

While Meadows said he continues to make the North Shore settlement a priority, he encouraged commissioners to file a lawsuit in hopes of getting the money. 

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