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.”