A $4 million installment may not seem like much considering the federal government still owes the county another $35.2 million to meet its $52 million obligation, but the payment gives Swain County commissioners hope that the rest of the money will be forthcoming.
Commission Chairman Phil Carson got choked up as Zinke and North Carolina congressmen presented the check to the county Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“This $4 million payment — along with what we already have of the $52 million —we’re going to help our people in our very economic stunted area,” he said.
Carson is the only active commissioner who was on the board back in 2010 when the county signed the settlement agreement with the Department of Interior. Making the agreement meant giving up on a long hope that the federal government would live up to its promise of constructing the North Shore Road from Bryson City to Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The new road was promised back in the 1940s when the Tennessee Valley Authority flooded a portion of the county to create Fontana Dam, but construction in the ‘70s proved too expensive to be completed — creating the Road to Nowhere.
Fontana Dam helped provide electricity that was crucial to the war effort — a war many Swain County men were off fighting. The idea that Swain residents gave all they had to their country with little to show for it when they returned is something that hasn’t been easy to get over.
“When soldiers came back home from World War II they couldn’t get home because the property was turned over to create Fontana Dam,” Carson said. “We are immensely proud to be part of the national park system and have it in our county. We are the gateway to the Great Smokies — the most visited park in the system. I feel this (payment) will help heal a lot of wounds.”
Those wounds are deep — Swain families still remember what it was like being forced off their land that was taken to create the national park and national forests. About 89 percent of the county is occupied by federally owned land, which leaves the county government with a minuscule tax base. Not wanting to overtax its local citizens, Swain County struggles to adequately fund its schools or make infrastructure improvements.
And even though the Department of Interior agreed to pay $52 million to Swain by 2020, the $4 million is only the second payment the county has received since the agreement was signed. A $12.8 million payment was made to the county in 2012, but subsequent installments kept getting delayed and tied up in what U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, called “bureaucratic red tape.”
At first, there was a problem getting Congress to get the funding included in the National Park Service’s budget. Even when a $4 million installment was included in the Park’s budget in 2012, the department claimed it didn’t have the authority to release the funds and asked for additional authorization from Congress.
After years of getting the runaround, the county filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior in April 2016 claiming breach of contract in the settlement. The complaint was dismissed after a judge ruled there was no breach until 2020. The county recently refiled the claim when news of the $4 million payment was announced, but Meadows is hopeful moving forward that the federal government will meet its obligation to the people of Swain County and bring a “swift end to a problem that should have been resolved years ago.”
“The release of an additional $4 million by the Department of Interior is a critical step toward resolving the unpaid ‘Road to Nowhere’ settlement that Swain County should have received long ago,” Meadows said. “Fortunately, President Trump’s administration has shown a tremendous willingness to make this situation right. I want to particularly thank Interior Secretary Zinke for his work and support in these efforts, along with the Swain County Board of Commissioners in my district who have poured in countless hours into helping make this happen.”
The $4 million being released comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that included the North Shore Road in the prioritized project list for the Park Service — the same money that was never appropriated because Department of the Interior argued they did not have the legal authority to do so.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, and N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, were also on hand in Washington for the check presentation.
“By the combined efforts of local officials partnering with congressional leaders our communities will being to receive the valuable funds they are due,” Clampitt said. “I cannot emphasize enough the role Sen. Tillis and Congressman Meadows played, with getting the ball rolling to begin rectifying a wrong that was brought upon the citizens of Western North Carolina, particularly Swain County.”
When you wait so long for something, Tillis said, the expectation becomes that you’ll never get it. That’s definitely how Swain County was feeling about the settlement money.
“This is an issue I have been working on since I was sworn in to the U.S. Senate, and I will continue to work with Swain County, Congress, and the Department of the Interior to advocate for the rest of the money they are owed is appropriated and repaid to them as promised,” Tillis said.
“The Department of Interior’s decision to compensate Swain County is well overdue, as it was initially appropriated in 2011. I support the Department’s decision and count it as a step in the right direction, but I will continue to press the Department to fully match Swain County’s expectations dating back to a decade-old agreement,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC. “When the federal government makes a promise, it should keep that promise. I will continue to work to hold the government accountable.”