“They did what we thought they would — they filed a motion for dismissal,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King. “Our next step is to respond to the motion and try to get it to court.”
Swain County commissioners voted unanimously in March to sue the U.S. Department of Interior for the remaining $39.2 million owed to the county from a settlement agreement reached in 2010. After filing multiple extensions, the Department of Interior finally issued its motion to dismiss late last week.
The $52 million settlement agreement upon by the National Park Service and Swain County was the result of a decades-long battle to get the federal government to rebuild the North Shore Road from Bryson City to Tennessee. Better known now as the Road to Nowhere, the 30-mile stretch was flooded in the 1940s when Fontana Dam was being created. Local officials fought for many years to get the 30-mile road rebuilt, but ultimately agreed to the settlement money instead.
The federal government did make an initial payment of $12.8 million after the settlement was reached, but Swain County hasn’t seen another dime since then. With the agreement expiring in 2020, county commissioners took drastic action with a lawsuit in hopes of recouping the money before the deadline.
“Swain County has waited for decades for the federal government to make good on its obligation to construct a critically important road connecting the north shore of the man-made Lake Fontana with the rest of Swain County,” the county’s complaint states. “The government committed in writing to build this road in 1943, shortly after the lake was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), but made very little progress for three decades and then stopped work altogether.”
In the federal government’s motion to dismiss, King said the Department of Interior claims it isn’t in violation of the settlement agreement yet since it has four more years to pay Swain County. However, Swain County’s complaint claims the government never had any intention to pay the settlement money because the funding was never budgeted by Congress.
“What makes this injustice all the more egregious is the fact that the government never intended to request funds and never intended to pay Swain County, even at the time it signed the 2010 agreement,” the complaint stated. “When Swain County sought assurances from NPS that it would request appropriations in future years, NPS responded that it never would request funds from Congress, and that it never intended to do so.”
The NPS did request funding for its installment payment to the county in 2010 and 2011 but hasn’t made a request to Congress since that time. The county’s claim says NPS failed to disburse the 2012 installment payment even though it was already appropriated.
For Swain County officials and residents, the federal government’s failed promise to pay is just one more letdown in a long list. When North Shore Road was flooded, thousands of residents were forced to leave the area. Without the road rebuilt, those families also lost access forever to their land, ancestral gravesites and heritage.
“For decades, Swain County was strung along, with the NPS promising to build the road, starting to build small sections of the road, and then stopping again and again for various unjustifiable reasons,” the complaint states. “The 2010 Agreement was intended by the parties to end seven decades of inaction and bring closure to the citizens of Swain County. That intent remains unfulfilled.”