It is one of the longest standing controversies in the region. The federal government promised 64 years ago to rebuild a road from Bryson City to Tennessee that was flooded for the creation of Fontana Lake. After decades of lobbying the government unsuccessfully to fulfill its promise, a new movement started to promote a cash settlement in lieu of the road.
The current board of commissioners voted 4 to 1 to support a $52 million settlement. But every four years when all five commissioners seats go up for election, the county’s official position is up for grabs. Where candidates stand on the North Shore Road is a litmus test for many voters, said Jonathan Douthit, a candidate who favors the settlement.
“Down here candidates live or die on the issue, or at least it separates the camps in a hurry,” Douthit said.
As a result, most candidates were difficult to pin down. But there’s one thing most agree on: that five commissioners from Swain County — whether they want the federal government to build a road or fork over $52 million — will have little bearing on whether Congress complies.
“It is out of Swain County’s hands,” said Ben Bushyhead, a candidate for commissioner.
Many candidates say they want a countywide vote to find out once and for all how the majority of residents feel. Right now, both sides claim they are speaking for the majority. That’s one reason a vote will probably never happen.
“I think it has been put off for so many years because both sides are afraid they would lose,” said Phillip Carson, one of the many candidates who said he supports a vote.
In the Democratic primary May 2, three candidates are facing off for chairman of the commissioners and 10 candidates are running for four commissioners seats. There is no Republican primary.
Glenn Jones, 66, retired A&P grocery manager
Jones is the current chairman of the county commissioners. He voted in favor of the county’s current pro-settlement stance.
Ronnie Barker, 54, recruiter with American Business Corp. for Job Corp
“I will never if elected, at any time, accept a $52 million settlement for the people of Swain County because I feel that we deserve a whole lot more. That’s less than 10 percent of what the government has said the road would cost. I will never sit back on our haunches and say give us $52 million and erase it. That is chicken feed. I would like to see these people given access back to their home place. These people deserve that.”
Boyd Gunter, 55, medical technologist at VA Hospital in Oteen
“That’s a divisive issue. I do not see anyone standing in line to give Swain County one dollar or standing in line with a bulldozer to build a road. It’s been divisive ever since I was born. It needs to be settled in such a way that the whole county benefits and not just a few people. Both sides are near sighted. It’s all in the past. I want to look forward to the future. I want something that will propel Swain County forward.”
David Anthony, 56, maintenance instructor with Job Corp
Anthony is an incumbent running for county commissioner. He voted in favor of the county’s current pro-settlement stance.
Lindsay is an incumbent running for county commissioner. She voted in favor of the county’s current pro-settlement stance.
David Monteith, 59, school bus driver and retired Ingles manager
Monteith has been a commissioner for eight years. He voted against the four commissioners three years ago when they adopted a resolution in support of the settlement.
“I support the North Shore road. It is our heritage and our heritage is not for sale at any price. They gave up everything they had for this national park and they give up their land to help end World War II, for their country. They were promised that road to access their heritage and the country owes them that.”
Phillip Carson, 43, plumber with family-owned Carson and Co.
“The correct thing for them to do 64 years ago was build a road. And that’s what I would vote for. I feel like they agreed to build it and should have built it a long time ago. But I also feel like $52 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the road cost.”
Carson supports a countywide vote.
“Let people say ‘yah’ or ‘nay’ and then pursue whatever that is.”
Vivian Robbins, 54, ran Headquarters Hair Design for 17 years
“I don’t foresee a road and I don’t see the money. I think Swain County needs to be compensated in some way. This area is too beautiful and too valuable for another road. We don’t need another road. With planning, we can have tourism without bringing them through a cut in the mountain. We need to move on.”
Troy Burns, 54, small business owner and real estate developer
“I feel like a decision for the road or settlement needs to be based on what is the best for the future of the county, not righting past wrongs. In my opinion, based on research, a settlement would be in the best interest of the future. It shouldn’t be about anything that connects me with my ancestry down there.”
Jonathan Douthit, 49, retired from business administration
“I am a monetary settlement man. The pro road people think there’s just gong to be a shower of gold if the road was ever built. A monetary settlement invested so you couldn’t do anything with the principle except draw the interest would do more for the people of Swain County. It’s more bang for their buck. I believe that agreement was with the people of Swain County, not the people who were moved.”
Ben Bushyhead, 58, director of community and recreation services for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
“If you come down on one side or the other you alienate half the county on being able to build bridges and mend fences. Somebody has to be able to pull those parties to the table and begin making plans for Swain County’s future. If you have stated your position publicly, you are not going to be trusted by the other side. You have to come in neutral. It is going to be tough and take time.”
Steve Moon, 55, owner of Steve Moon Tire Co.
“The county commissioners will have an opinion but the final decision won’t be left up to them. It’s been 64 years. If they were going to build it they would have built it back then. The environmentalists have a lot more power now than then. So some kind of compensation is due to Swain County.”
Lou Ball, 41, real estate sales with Yellow Rose
“I would love to see the road built because it is a promise from the government, but it has been 63 years now. I don’t want to have to take the money. I want to see the road. But at what point are we going to get the road or the money? Will my grandchildren see the road?”
Ball said she supports a county wide vote.
“Do they want the road built or they support a settlement. We are a voice for the people. It’s not what I want but what the people want.”