Meeting, no meeting: Swain leaders cancel North Shore hearing on 3-2 vote

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Supporters of a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would fulfill a decades-old promise were thrilled last month when the Swain County commissioners agreed to hold the first-ever public hearing on the issue.

However, those hopes were dashed at the following county commissioners meeting when the public hearing was abruptly cancelled.

That meeting began with a public comment session in which long-time Bryson City resident Virginia DeBord stood up to thank the commissioners for agreeing to hold the public hearing. Her comments were followed by a speech given by Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County leader Leonard Winchester, who, unlike DeBord, chastised the commissioners for their decision to hold the public hearing, calling it peculiar.

In April, the National Park Service’s announcement of its support of a cash settlement to the people of Swain County — rather than construction of a new road — set the wheels in motion toward officially securing a cash settlement.

With all four parties who signed the original North Shore Road contract — the National Park Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the state of North Carolina, and Swain County — now in support of a cash settlement it seems unlikely a public hearing would have an impact on reversing the decision.

“That opportunity (to hold a public hearing) has been there every day,” Winchester said. “There is not going to be a road.”

Winchester accused road supporters of “trying to frame this issue as the eternal battle between good and evil.”

“We’re put in a position to have to beat on them after they’re down,” he said.

Winchester concluded by requesting that the commissioners cancel the hearing on the basis that the deadline for input has passed.

After the public comment session, commissioners attended to other matters on their agenda. When those were taken care of, however, and the meeting was about to be adjourned, Commissioner Steve Moon spoke up.

“I firmly believe that what needed to be said (on the road issue) has already been said,” Moon said. “I make a motion that at this time, we cancel this meeting.”

This signaled an about face for Moon, since two weeks before his vote had made the public hearing possible. Moon, a cash-settlement supporter, sided with pro-road commissioners David Monteith and Phillip Carson in agreeing that commissioners should hold a forum in which they listened directly to their constituents.

Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay unofficially seconded Moon’s motion, then made an official motion echoing Moon’s suggestion. Chairman Glenn Jones moved to second Lindsay’s motion, but before commissioners could vote, the audience went into an uproar.

Mike Clampitt, chairman of the Swain County Republican Party, warned the decision to cancel the public hearing would bring embarrassment to the county.

Commissioner David Monteith voiced his disappointment.

“What’s taken place is about as sorry as government that I’ve ever seen in the United States of America. People who gave up everything they ever had, which was their homes, their heritage ... they were not allowed in 1943 to have a say, and in 2007, people are still not allowed to have a say,” Monteith said.

“For our commissioners in Swain County not to be willing to listen to the people that voted for us, it is a disgrace to our government,” he continued.

Following Monteith’s comments, the commissioners went into closed session without finishing an official vote on whether to cancel the hearing.

The audience was left wondering what had transpired.

“I heard a motion and a second, but that did not pass,” Clampitt said.

Since the commissioners did not get the chance to finish their vote by asking who was in favor and who was opposed, there was confusion as to whether the vote had gone through.

The audience remained in their seats for the duration of the 30-minute closed session. During this time, a passionate debate ensued as pro-road advocates argued with cash settlement supporters.

When the commissioners returned to the room, they obliged to demands from the audience that an official vote be taken.

This time, the vote was 3-2 in favor of canceling the public hearing, with Jones, Lindsay and Moon voting to cancel it and Monteith and Commissioner Phillip Carson dissenting.


Surprise cancellation

The ultimate decision to cancel the public hearing on the North Shore Road came as a shock to pro-road supporters. At the June 26 commissioners meeting, the vote to hold a public hearing hinged on the vote of Commissioner Steve Moon. Traditionally, Moon has stood in favor of a cash settlement, but supported a public hearing anyway. As he explained to The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, “I feel like it is our responsibility to listen to what people have to say. That is part of our duty.”

Two weeks later, Moon did a complete reversal by moving to cancel the public hearing. He explained that after much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion that holding a public hearing would give false hope to the advocates in favor of building the North Shore Road.

“I prayed about this decision and it was a hard decision to make and it was a hard thing to carry out. I agonized over it. I’m still satisfied now that I did the right thing. The public hearing I felt wouldn’t solve anything — we need to heal,” Moon said in defense of his decision.

Clampitt, who is committed to pursuing the public hearing even if all the commissioners aren’t present, is currently looking into possible civil rights violations in the commissioners’ decision to cancel the public hearing.

“They first approved ... then they take the decision into a 180-degree reversal. (Sam Moon) is the same person that made the motion to have a meeting. That’s a denial, and when you go into denial, that restricts rights and freedom of speech. There is potential this thing could escalate. Actually, there’s a bigger issue at hand, and that is civil rights and liberties,” Clampitt said.


The next step

Nothing official can commence on the cash settlement until the National Park Service publishes its final decision, which is not expected until the end of September. After publishing their official decision in favor of the cash, the original parties from the agreement would likely get back together and draw up a new contract to specify a cash settlement rather than construction of a new North Shore Road.

Meanwhile, it was announced July 12 that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., working with Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has introduced legislation to allow $6 million in unspent money originally earmarked for road construction to be used as a down payment toward the cash settlement.

According to Rep. Heath Shuler’s press secretary Andrew Whalen, a similar proposal is being crafted in the House. Shuler, D-Waynesville, is currently working with the Appropriations Committee on a House version of the same item, which will go up for a vote in the next two weeks. If that version is passed in the House, the budget item will then go before a conference committee.

After some wording is worked out, the two versions of the budget items will be reconciled and made available for a second vote. Whalen says the final budget items will likely be voted on by Sept. 30.

Greg Kidd of the National Parks Conservation Association said that if the cash settlement ends up being the ultimate outcome of the 64-year-old North Shore Road debate, he and others from the environmental camp will make sure Swain County sees the money. Many national environmental groups fought against road construction.

“It’s not the conservation community’s plan to just walk away. We’ll stay until we get the cash settlement,” he assured.

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