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.