The setting may have been humble –– a nondescript meeting room in a county administration building –– but the Swain County commissioners’ vote to pass a moratorium on communications and utility projects may prove monumental. The vote could force utility giant Duke Energy to the negotiating table, and it was a bona fide act of solidarity with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the part of the county.
Last week, four Swain County commissioners –– Genevieve Lindsay, Steve Moon, Phil Carson, and David Monteith –– voted unanimously to pass a 90-day moratorium on all telecommunications and utility projects that require a county building permit.
The moratorium could prevent Duke Energy from moving forward with a controversial electrical substation project near the sacred Cherokee site Kituwah.
After the vote, a small but energetic crowd of Swain County residents –– some enrolled EBCI members –– applauded loudly.
“We don’t often get applauded,” said a smiling Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay, who chaired the meeting in the absence of County Chairman Glenn Jones.
Judging by the crowd, Lindsay should not have been surprised by the applause.
Nate Darnell, whose family operates Darnell Farms, an agri-tourism business in the same valley as the Kituwah mothertown site, expressed his support for the moratorium.
“I want people to come to our farm and say, ‘Wow, this place is unscathed by development,’” Darnell said. “We have to take a stand and say some things are more valuable than power.”
Darnell’s family has leased the farmstead since 1984 and is the most recognizable business in the valley below the proposed Duke Energy substation project at Hyatt Creek, between Ela and Bryson City.
“I’m not a conservationist. I’m a preservationist,” Darnell said. “I don’t want the land locked up, I want it used wisely.”
Natalie Smith, a Swain resident and Cherokee business owner who has led a citizens’ group that opposes the substation project, also spoke in support of the moratorium.
“I am so relieved to see Swain County take the reins. It is overdue. This could be an historical event,” Smith said. “I feel as if Swain County has taken many punches over the decades from big conglomerates and continues to suffer from them. Finally, we are standing up for ourselves and acknowledging our assets.”
Smith’s citizen action group has announced its intent to bring suit against Duke over the project.
“The coalition is organizing and we are going legal, but we can’t discuss any details until the case is in court,” Smith said.
But it was the Swain County commissioners themselves who had the final say on the moratorium, which will be in effect for 90 days. During that time the county will develop an ordinance regulating the construction of telecommunications and utility facilities. New ordinances can’t be adopted until a public hearing is held, meaning Swain citizens will get the opportunity to address the proposal before it becomes law.
“You can’t stop progress, and we don’t want to,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But it would be a shame if they were allowed to continue to desecrate that site. Let’s see if the project can be located in a place that would be less visible and less detrimental.”
Moon said he felt the need to stand up for the Cherokee residents of Swain County, in part, because his wife Faye is an enrolled EBCI member who feels strongly about the issue.
“They’re our friends, our relatives and our neighbors,” Moon said.
Commissioner Phil Carson said his vote was prompted by his experience at a meeting last month between Duke Energy’ and the EBCI to which the Swain commissioners were invited.
“I felt like it was a real eye-opener,” Carson said. “We were really just observers and weren’t considered as part of the solution to the problem. Working together for all our people is the common goal.”
While it’s not entirely clear whether the moratorium will stop Duke’s progress on the 300-by-300-foot substation on a hill overlooking the Kituwah site, Fred Alexander, Duke’s regional director, was clearly concerned by the vote.
“Quite frankly what Duke is trying to do is find an alternative that will meet the needs of our customers in Swain and Jackson counties that gets us off of that mountain,” Alexander said.
Renissa Walker, another enrolled member of the EBCI who resides in Swain County, confronted Alexander after the meeting, asking him to consider the issue from the perspective of a tribal member.
“Stand on top of the mound under a full moon and do a 360-degree turn making a full circle, and you’ll see that Kituwah is protected by all of those mountains and you’ll see the genius of why our ancestors put it there,” Walker said.
The EBCI Tribal Council passed a resolution last month clearing the way for the tribe to take legal action against Duke. So far, the tribe has not filed any suits in court or with the state utilities commission, preferring instead to hold ongoing negotiations focused on locating alternative site locations and considering options for mitigating the visual impact of the project.
The Swain moratorium poses the first legal hurdle to the project, but much depends on what kind of ordinance the county produces during the moratorium period. Duke needs a county building permit for the project and does not have one.
Alexander, while communicating Duke’s desire to resolve the conflict with the tribe and the county, was careful to reiterate the company’s stance so far on the issue.
“On the other hand, we’re not in a position to say, ‘No, we can’t be where we are today,’ because we have a responsibility to serve our customers,” Alexander said.
Both Swain County and the EBCI have offered alternative locations, and Alexander said Duke would continue to evaluate its options before making a decision on whether to relocate its substation.