Road supporters have convinced Swain County commissioners to hold a public hearing on the controversial road. The timing seems odd, since the wheels are in motion to abandon the idea of building the road and instead compensate Swain County with a cash settlement of $52 million. Just last month, the National Park Service voiced support for the cash settlement following a five-year, $10 million study on the issue. The National Park Service opinion was seen as the final piece falling into place to pave the way for a cash settlement. Meanwhile, WNC Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has amassed a coalition of lawmakers in Washington in support of a cash settlement.
Less important, but players nonetheless, are the Swain County commissioners and their opinion. The commissioners are on the record in favor of a cash settlement, but that position dates back five years. Last fall, two new commissioners were elected to the board. Road supporters want to see the current board of commissioners take a new vote and hope the public hearing will help sway the commissioners’ official position in their favor.
Linda Hogue, a road supporter, said a public hearing by commissioners is long overdue regardless.
“It is the most important issue of our lifetime in terms of the impact that it is going to have on our county,” said Hogue. “They never have held a public hearing, ever.”
While the National Park Service has held several public hearings in Bryson City on the issue over the past five years — some attracting upwards of 300 people — the hearings sometimes bordered on a circus. Road supporters complained that the audience was dominated by out-of-town environmental groups — from Asheville hiking clubs to national groups like the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy — who passed out talking points and stickers to their troops. Reporters from the New York Times and National Public Radio joined local media in the fray.
The mission of the National Park Service was to collect opinions from the entire country, since the park belongs to all United States citizens. But Swain County commissioners should base their decision whether to support the road on the opinions of locals. That’s why it is important for the commissioners to hold their own public hearing, said Commissioner David Monteith.
“This is for local people. If anyone else wants to speak, they can. But the ones we consider will be Swain County citizens,” Monteith said. “I don’t care if we stay all night. I want every citizen from Swain County to have a say.”
Leonard Winchester, a Swain County resident and a leading advocate of the cash settlement, said a public hearing at this stage is pointless. A $600 million road through a national park is not going to be built regardless. Negative publicity at this point will only serve to undermine the cash settlement as well, he said.
“What kind of fallout there will be from it may be minimal, but there is certainly nothing positive about it,” Winchester said of the public hearing. “It can’t help.”
No new majority
It seems unlikely the county commissioners will adopt a new official position in the wake of the public hearing. The vote five years ago was 4 to 1 in favor of the cash settlement. The lone commissioner in favor of the road — David Monteith — is still on the board. If both the newly elected commissioners supported the road, there could feasibly be a new 3 to 2 majority in favor of the road.
But that is not the case. Commissioner Steve Moon, one of the newly elected commissioners, said while he supports the idea of holding a public hearing for people, that is no reflection of his position on the road.
“I feel like it is our responsibility to listen to what people have to say. That is part of our duty,” Moon said of his support for holding the public hearing. But Moon said he does not anticipate the commissioners adopting a pro-road position following the public hearing. During election season last fall, Moon came out in favor of the cash settlement, and that appears to be his position still.
That leaves Commissioner Phillip Carson — the other newly elected commissioner. During the election last fall, Carson said he was in favor of the road. He did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. If Carson maintains the pro-road position as stated during his campaign, it still won’t be enough to shift the county’s official position. The vote would be 3 to 2 in favor of the cash settlement. Commission Chairman Glenn Jones and Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay both support the cash settlement.
Commissioner David Monteith plans to call for a vote among commissioners following the public hearing regardless.
“This particular board has not had a say in this issue. It should be up to this board, not the previous board, to make a decision,” Monteith said.
How it happened
The idea for a public hearing for locals was broached by commissioners at their meeting last week. Not all were keen on the idea. During the public comment period of the meeting, Linda Hogue, a road supporter, called on commissioners to hold a public hearing for locals. At first, it seemed like Hogue’s request for a public hearing wasn’t going anywhere fast. But as Monteith pushed the issue, Commissioners Moon and Carson agreed.
Road supporters hope to turn out the masses in favor of the road at the public hearing and influence the commissioners to adopt a pro-road stance.
Leonard Winchester, a leading advocate for the cash settlement, said the numbers at the public hearing will not be an adequate gauge of how the majority of people in Swain County feel. Winchester said the pro-road people use “confrontation and intimidation” to deter their opponents from speaking out.
“Common sense people and well-respected people in the community when you talk to them about coming to something like this, they say they don’t want to go,” Winchester said. “They have their opinion and would be glad to express it in a letter or phone call, but not at this kind of forum.”
Winchester said the road supporters want to use the public hearing to create the illusion of a majority.
“The challenge they have always had to face is how do they make a small number of people appear to be the dominant voice of the county,” Winchester said.
But Hogue is not sure her side will show up in large numbers either.
“The people support it and talk about how they want it, but they will not come out to meetings,” Hogue said. “We just want people to stand up and speak from their heart.”