Swain County leaders were relieved this month when the state gave them the go ahead to tap $382,000 in interest from the North Shore Road settlement trust fund.
The recent three-day trip to Washington, D.C., marks the fourth time Swain County representatives have visited the capital during the last couple years.
The outlook for Swain County doesn’t look any better this year than it did the last three years in its quest to make good on the government’s stale promise of a cash settlement.
A long overdue $4 million payment may finally make its way to Swain County after languishing for the past year in the budget dungeons of the National Park Service.
The payment is part of a larger $52 million cash settlement the federal government pledged to pay Swain County — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road that was flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s.
The cash settlement now signed and sealed for Swain County in lieu of building the North Shore Road is a good thing, right?
Well, it’s a good thing only if the entire $52 million comes through, and that’s something that this newspaper, the rest of the media in this region, and the leaders who have put their names on this document need to make sure happens.
I’m in the camp of those who have been saying for years that the settlement was among the best of the available options. A real road along the north shore of Fontana Lake just doesn’t make sense, not today. When that promise was made, the idea of protecting wilderness areas was just taking root. The recent Ken Burns documentary about the national parks explained in detail how the national park movement started, fermented, then took off.
Now, six decades later, this area on the lake’s shore is touted by many as the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. There is no way anyone besides the relatives of those forcibly moved from the land could want this road built.
For what it’s worth, I personally favored another, more expensive option. I think the park service should have extended the road by a mile or so and then built a visitor center at its terminus explaining the history of the former logging and mining villages in the area, the promises made to those who left, and how the controversy ended. This, along with $52 million for Swain County, would have been a better outcome.
But this is settlement is what we have, and there is more than a little irony in the new agreement. Once again Swain County residents are given a promise — $52 million — and are asked to trust in the federal government that it will be fulfilled. I’m more than just a little worried, especially given the nation’s budget woes, the capriciousness of political leaders everywhere, and the strong current of partisan warfare that now engulfs Washington. What Rep. Heath Shuler and President Obama’s minions promise may mean nothing to the next set of elected officials who take office.
There is another “catch” in this agreement that doesn’t involve the federal government. The state is going to hold the money in a trust account so the principal can’t be touched, and Swain will get the interest. Again, another government entity that was part of the original agreement is going to be in line ahead of Swain to actually control the money. When the budget gets tight, those dollars are going to look more like filet mignon than a sacred cow. North Carolina, indeed, has a recent history of withholding money from counties and towns that, by its own statutes, didn’t belong to the state.
Right now, Swain is to get $12.8 million. The rest is to come in over the next 10 years, at the rate of about $4 million a year.
I’m confident that Swain County is going to get this money, but I’m also confident that there will be some greedy hands trying to grab some of it in the coming decade. It never hurts to prepare for battle.
There is no more deserving Main Street Champion than former Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy, who was honored with this award during the recent Main Street North Carolina banquet.
Foy, who served as mayor of Waynesville until 2008, was for decades the face of a town that underwent a dramatic revival under his leadership. Waynesville’s downtown is often held up as a model, and Foy is one of those responsible for its success.
For years, he supported efforts to revitalize the downtown area and never missed an important event that would bring publicity or development. Foy, who still lives a little more than a block from Main Street, was an elected official for 26 years and mayor for 16.
A well-deserved award if ever there was one.
The signing of a cash settlement deal for Swain County last week was a heartbreaking end to a lifelong struggle for many.
For decades, road supporters held on to hope — hope that the government would honor the promise it made in the midst of a wide-scale evacuation to make way for the creation of Lake Fontana in the 1940s. The lake flooded the only road that led to their former communities, but they believed one day it would be rebuilt, allowing them to visit their former home sites and family cemeteries inside the Smokies.
To some descendents of those who lived along what is now called the North Shore, the road symbolized a connection to their past, a sense of place and a link to their heritage. The loss of the road is profound.
Charlene Blankenship, a road supporter, said family members have promised each other on their deathbeds they would never stop fighting for a road to their old cemeteries.
Linda Hogue, a leader behind the fight, said she will have more time on her hands now. She’ll spend it in her garden, with family and being more active in church, she said. But she also plans to turn her energy toward this year’s county commissioner elections, working to unseat those who voted for the cash settlement.
On the eve of a vote by county commissioners to accept the cash settlement and give up the county’s claim to a road, descendents of the North Shore community held a teary prayer meeting. A few dozen turned out to witness the vote the next day as well as the ceremony on Saturday, but most stayed home because they could not bear to watch, said Blankenship.
A few smuggled protest signs written in black marker on hot pink poster board into the ceremony, folded up inside their jackets or purses, and unveiled them during the myriad speeches. Luke Hyde, a leader of the cash settlement movement who presided over the ceremony, asked the protestors to put their signs away.
“There will be a time and place for protests, but it is not now,” Hyde said to the crowd.
But they continued to display them. One member stood up with her back to the stage, facing the large auditorium, in a silent protest. Many wore black armbands.
Until the bitter end
When commissioners convened the day before the ceremony to vote on whether to accept the cash settlement, David Monteith, the lone commissioner opposed to the vote, stood to deliver lengthy remarks. He challenged and begged the rest of the board not to go forward with the vote.
Monteith repeated his long-standing request that the county conduct a vote to gauge public opinion. He asked if he could be put on the agenda for three minutes during the ceremony to represent the other side of the issue. He also asked to open the meeting to public comment before the commissioners voted.
He put numerous such requests in the form of motions, but none got a second from another commissioner.
Monteith said the county has a legal and binding contract from the government promising to rebuild the road, and it should stand strong rather than be sold out for a cash settlement.
“We’ve had a legal binding contract for 66 years and where has that gotten us?” Commissioner Steve Moon asked. “Do you believe they would ever build the road, David?”
“As God is my witness, yes sir, I think the road would be built if we would stand our ground,” Monteith said. “We’ve been 66 years without a road. I would rather spend another 66 fighting.”
“How long would you be willing to wait?” Moon asked.
“If they brought $52 million in with a wheelbarrow right now, I would still be opposed to it,” Monteith answered.
But Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said accepting the cash settlement was the right decision for the future.
“We need to move on. We don’t need to look at the past. We need to vote on the future for this county,” Jones said.
Carter Petty, the director of Mountain Discovery Charter School, took his class on a fieldtrip to the county commissioners meeting Friday to witness the historic event.
“I want these guys to experience it,” Petty said, as they waited for the meeting to start. “It is a tremendously emotional issue.”
A win for all
Claude Douthit, a leader among the cash settlement supporters, spent 35 years trying to convince people to set their emotions aside and look at the issue rationally. The road would never be built, so the county should try to get something instead of nothing, said Douthit, who in the mid-1970s became one of the early crafters behind the idea of a cash settlement.
“There has been a division in Swain County here for years over this and it needs to be brought to an end so the people of Swain County can get back on track trying their best to cooperate with each other instead of fight with each other,” Douthit said.
Douthit’s son, Jonathan, hopes the next generation will grow up without the division that has burdened the county in the past.
“This is right up there with the Civil War with dividing families,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan said he doesn’t see his side as the winner and the other side as the losers.
“They didn’t lose. We all won,” Jonathan said.
The cash settlement, once it reaches $52 million, could reap more than $3 million a year in interest — nearly a quarter of Swain’s entire budget right now.
“I see the availability for a better quality of life for a lot of people,” Jonathan said. “I think it will be a boon to Swain County and some might not realize it now, but they will see how much vision has been shown by doing this for the future.”
As for Douthit, there were times he thought his dream would never come to fruition, or that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. An organization formed to advanced the cash settlement, known as the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, has met monthly for 10 years, right up until last week.
“Why did I keep on? That’s the only thing I know, I reckon,” said Douthit.
Suddenly finding a lot more time on his hands is perhaps the one thing he has in common with road supporters.
Swain County officially signed a cash settlement with the federal government in a moving and historic ceremony Saturday, ending a bitter decades-long dispute over the North Shore Road.
Swain will received $52 million from the government, and in exchange will drop its claims to a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.
“It has taken Swain County 67 years to reach this point today,” said County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “The journey has not been easy folks.”
Congressman Heath Shuler, a Swain County native and football star, received three separate standing ovations during the ceremony for his critical work to bring the settlement to fruition.
“When you were up here playing football for the Maroon Devils, who would have ever thought you would be the missing piece of this puzzle?” Jones said.
Shuler fought tirelessly to win political support in Washington, including within the White House, for a settlement and to secure the first round of appropriations.
“It is not just about the money. It is letting go of something in the past that has divided us,” said Shuler, who choked up during one part of his speech. “I think maybe that’s why God has put me here, to bring a divided community back together.”
Under the cash settlement, Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The amount of the settlement is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded, plus interest.
“What we have tried to do in this whole issue is get an injustice for Swain County done and over with,” said Claude Douthit, a father of the cash settlement movement, following the ceremony. “I have tried and tried and tired for all of these years to bring people on board and educate them. It has taken me a long time to ever get the stars right so to speak. It finally came about.”
Luke Hyde, an attorney and leader of the cash settlement movement, led an invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, which was held at Swain County High School.
“Bless what the public officials will do here today and go with us into the future so we can do a better job for our children and our children’s children,” Hyde said.
The money from the settlement will be placed in a protected trust fund. The county will get the annual interest, which will amount to more than $3 million a year once the full settlement is received.
Jones referenced the motto on a sign outside the high school where the ceremony was held, declaring “Our best and then some.”
“We want to put this note in our kids’ pockets and say ‘We have given you our best and then some,’” Jones said. “Some way or another every citizen in Swain County will benefit from this cash settlement. I can see great things to come.”
The Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar was scheduled to appear and sign the settlement in person. But as a major snowstorm barreled down on Washington, D.C., late last week, Shuler and his staffers rapidly concocted a contingency plan.
The document required four signatures, one from each of the original signers to a 1943 agreement promising to rebuild the road. Shuler dispatched his aide Ryan Fitzpatrick on Thursday to collect the signatures ahead of time and deliver them to Swain County in time for the ceremony. After getting Salazar’s signature in D.C., Fitzpatrick promptly flew out to Raleigh and met with Gov. Beverly Perdue. He was scheduled to fly out from there to Knoxville on Friday to collect a signature from the Tennessee Valley Authority, but impending winter weather in the mountains led him to change his plans and fly on to Knoxville that night, and finally on to Swain County by car on Friday.
At each stop, he took a celebratory photo of the document with his cell phone and sent the picture back to Shuler. The documents never left his side during the two-day journey.
“I had them either on my lap or in the passenger seat right beside me,” Fitzpatrick said.
The final two signatures — that of Swain County Commissioner Glenn Jones and Congressman Shuler as a witness — were saved for Saturday’s ceremony.
Salazar sent written remarks, delivered by Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.
“It is not often one can end a 70-year old controversy with the stroke of a pen,” Salazar wrote.
The settlement was good news to environmentalists, who have spent decades fighting the road through a large, remote territory of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“I was afraid I would die before I got it done,” said Ted Snyder, a Sierra Club activist who has been part of the fight since the 1960s. “It is an enormous win.”
A cash settlement with the federal government in lieu of the long-promised North Shore Road will reap annual dividends for Swain County for years to come.
The county will put the money in a lockbox and only use the interest each year. In fact, the county couldn’t tap the principal even if it wanted to without permission from a two-thirds majority of all county voters.
Last year, the county created a trust fund to safeguard the pending windfall with the North Carolina State Treasurer. The state will remit interest off the account to Swain County, but the principal cannot be touched unless supported by a supermajority of registered voters in Swain County.
“Since by law only the interest income can be spent, the county will have a source of income forever. Therefore every citizen of Swain County will benefit,” Douthit said.
The government will pay $4 million into the account immediately. The remaining $8.8 million will be released 120 days after a final settlement figure is agreed on.
The state’s investment vehicle has performed well. It reaped an average 6.2 percent interest over the past five years, according to the N.C. State Treasurer.
Interest on the $12.8 million would be close to $800,000 annually, based on the average interest rate of the past five years.
Claude Douthit has spent half his life fighting the federal government over the North Shore Road.
The decades-old debate dates back to the 1940s, when the federal government flooded a road outside Bryson City with the construction of Lake Fontana. The government promised to rebuild it but never did. While Swain gave up its quest for the long-promised road and agreed to take a cash settlement instead, the government had been dragging its feet lately on that as well.
Douthit, 81, began to wonder whether he would live long enough to see the cash settlement come to fruition or whether his decades of work would go to waste. He occasionally wanted to give up.
“I felt like it many times. I felt like it was so futile,” Douthit said. “[But] I just kept working on it. I am very pleased that a 66-year injustice to Swain County has finally been resolved.”
So when word trickled down that Congress would finally be passing an earmark with Swain County’s name on it, an afternoon in front of CSPAN seemed like a small price to pay. Douthit camped out in front of his television through hours of Congressional drudgery last Wednesday to witness an otherwise anti-climactic vote by the House on the defense spending bill. Tucked deep in that bill was a Christmas present to Swain County: $12.8 million secured by Congressman Heath Shuler toward repairing a decades-old broken promise.
“After 66 years I’d say it is history in the making to get something instead of nothing,” Douthit said. “I wanted to see it. After working on this issue for 40 years, it was time to get something, time for me to see some results.”
County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said the news was heartwarming after such a long struggle.
“The people of Swain County can now share this settlement,” Jones said.
Douthit credits Shuler for getting the appropriation.
“I think he has done a good job. He has finally got them to realize they owe Swain County,” Douthit said.
While others before him failed, Shuler was keenly positioned to bring the long-standing issue to a close. For starters, he grew up in Swain County, and to him, the debate was more than just political posturing.
“To grow up in that community and see how that road has divided families and divided the community, when there is an opportunity to settle something that has lingered for that many decades, to put it to rest, I hope we can bring the community back together,” Shuler said.
Shuler said his heart goes out to those with deep feelings on both sides in the debate, but his position for a settlement has been driven by the need for closure.
Shuler’s politics may have given him leverage in winning the earmark. As a Blue Dog Democrat — part of a coalition of conservative Democrats — he has angered the Democratic majority for voting against them on key legislation but also staked out his position as a swing voter for the party, potentially making it easier to curry favors.
“I’m glad Heath had a enough clout to get what we got right now,” Jones said.
The quest for a cash settlement has been vehemently opposed by those who would rather see the flooded road rebuilt as originally promised. Road supporters have fought equally long and equally hard.
But the environmental resistance to building a 30-mile road through a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — not to mention a price tag of $600 million — led many to realize rebuilding the road would never happen and that a cash settlement in lieu of the road was Swain’s best chance at putting the issue to bed.
The National Park Service formally spoke out against the road in 2007. Now, with the cash settlement cemented in a Congressional act, it becomes virtually impossible to roll back. Douthit said it is time for warring sides to move on.
“Swain County citizens will no longer be divided over this issue and can press ahead toward a brighter future for every resident of the county,” Douthit said.
More to come
While the appropriation falls short of the $52 million Swain hoped to get from a cash settlement, it’s an important milestone.
“Before this, they never had made a commitment,” Jones said. “To me, that shows that they realize they do owe Swain County something.”
The settlement amount of $52 million is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation. The $12.8 million has been coined a “down payment” on a total sum to come.
“The congressman has said this is a down payment. He is not giving up,” Jones said.
Negotiations between Swain County and the federal government over the dollar amount of a cash settlement have been stalled for a year and a half but may finally be on track again.
Shuler said attorneys on both sides are drawing up the draft language for a settlement agreement “as we speak.”
“I certainly hope in the next 30 to 60 days we get something that is concrete,” Shuler said.
As for the amount, no one is saying how much Swain compromised on the sum of $52 million.
“I feel like we will get something we can be very proud of,” Shuler said.
Shuler said he will fight for another round of appropriations next year.
The National Park Service and Swain County appear locked in a stalemate over how much the federal government should pay up for breaking its long-standing contract to replace a road flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana in the 1940s.
Swain County has asked for $52 million as fair compensation for the government’s refusal to honor the long-standing written promise to rebuild the road it flooded. But a meeting between Swain County and the National Park Service last week ended once again without a resolution. It is the fourth meeting held between the parties over the past 18 months.
“It is the same thing they have been doing for the past 65 years — they tell you one thing then they go back on their word,” said Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, who would rather see the road rebuilt rather than cash anyway. “I told the commissioners it was time they put their britches on. We have yet to get what we were promised.”
Swain County Manager Kevin King said the county expects $52 million and nothing less. The number was first proposed by the county in 2002. The park service later used that figure in its own literature and documents that were disseminated to the public during a comprehensive analysis of whether to rebuild the flooded road — which would traverse 30 miles through the Smokies — or compensate the county financially for the broken contract.
Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson has failed to get behind the number, however.
“Their whole mission is to get as low a number as possible,” King said. “That’s why it is called a negotiation. They are just doing their job.”
Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, would not say whether the park service endorses $52 million, or whether it opposes the amount.
“Discussion are still ongoing, aimed at coming up with an agreeable settlement amount,” Miller said.
Heading into the meeting, those following the process thought the park service might put a formal offer on the table. However, that didn’t happen. Instead, Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, will continue lobbying for the full $52 million.
“He is trying to get it worked out behind the scenes,” King said. “I think that is why the park service did not present an offer because they know the wheels of government are turning.”
The negotiations had reached an impasse last year, with the park service unwilling to get behind $52 million. Shuler intervened in hopes of getting the money appropriated anyway.
King and County Attorney Kim Lay are the only people representing Swain County who participated in the meeting, which included a dozen people representing five different parties.