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Wednesday, 19 August 2009 14:12

The road to a cash settlement

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1920s

Forney Creek Township wants a road leading from Bryson City to Deals Gap on the Tennessee state line. It is the height of the timber boom, and the road would improve access to Knoxville. The community took out bonds totaling $400,000 to pay for the road.

1934

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially created.

1940

Forney Creek Township has yet to pay a single cent on the road bonds it took out nearly 20 years prior. With interest, the amount now came to $694,000. The county assumes the outstanding debt. It refinances the bond for $1.3 million, which also includes money for a new school.

1941

President Roosevelt authorizes federal funding to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. The hydropower is needed by Alcoa, which is producing sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes. Tennessee Valley Authority begins land acquisition.

1942

The federal government wrestles with what to do about 216 families living in a 44,000-acre territory that will be cut off when the lake floods the only road in or out of the area. With a war on, the government doesn’t have the money or time to build a new road above the high water mark. But leaving the people isolated on the far side of the lake isn’t an option either.

1943

The 44,000 acres is added to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the people evacuated, along with those in the direct path of rising water. An agreement is signed between Swain County commissioners, the Governor of North Carolina, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Interior that promises to build a new road — provided Congress appropriates the funds — along the north shore. Road is to be part of an “Around the Park” road network, to commence as soon after WWII as Congress appropriates funds.

1946

Six landowners who didn’t want to give up their land in the North Shore area lose a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted to keep their land, since the government was supposedly rebuilding the road, and saw no need for it to be ceded to the park service.

They won twice in lower courts, but it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied the families’ claim.

1947-48

Park service builds 0.9 mile of the promised road on the Fontana Dam side.

1959

State of North Carolina constructs a road from Bryson City to the national park boundary, laying the groundwork for the park to pick up construction.

1960

Congressman Roy A. Taylor secured $8 million for construction of the North Shore Road. Park service commences road construction where the state left off.

1962

National Park Service issues a report stating “it appears to be in the public interest to seriously reconsider the plan” to build the road.

1964

National Park Service proposes a trans-mountain road from Bryson City to Townsend, Tenn., in lieu of completing a road along the lake shore.

1966

A public hearing is held in Bryson City that pits advocates of Wilderness Area designation for the park with locals who want their road.

1968

Construction on the road stops after seven miles. The park service has used up the $8 million and is out of money. The prospects for more money seem slim due to environmental opposition.

1974

Contingency from Swain County makes a trip to Raleigh to visit N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan. They ask Morgan for the state’s help suing the federal government to resolve the 1943 Agreement. They learn they have no grounds for a lawsuit, due to a hold harmless clause in the agreement.

1975

Swain County finally pays off the Forney Creek Road debt from the 1920s for a road that’s long since been flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana.

1975

North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser attempts to craft a compromise to provide a cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of the road. At a later meeting in Washington, D.C., a Swain County attorney offers a starting figure of $25 million, but the National Park Service representative refuses to even negotiate and ends the meeting.

1977

A public hearing is held in Bryson City, again on the issue of wilderness designation for the park.

1978

Secretary of the Department of the Interior Cecil Andrus visits Swain County at the request of local leaders clamoring to get the score settled. They hire a bus and pile in with Andrus on a tour of the county, from Calf Pen Gap overlooking the lake to lunch at the Deep Creek pavilion in the park. After returning to Washington, Andrus appoints an ad hoc committee “to look into the controversies surrounding the agreement and recommend possible solutions.”

Nov. 28, 1980

Andrus writes a letter to the Swain County commissioners agreeing to help them secure a financial settlement of $9.5 million. The sum is based on the value of the road in 1940 at $1.3 million and compounded annually at 5 percent. His letter states: “Over the years others have proposed alternative solutions to resolving the conditions of the agreement but none have been successful. In as such as this controversy has existed for 37 years, it is now time to resolve this controversy.”

1980

Congressman Lamar Gudger, D-Asheville, introduces a bill for a cash settlement of $11.1 million. The bill passes the House but never makes it to the Senate.

1983

A group of Swain County residents files a lawsuit in federal court against all the signatories of the ’43 Agreement asking for road to be built or the lake to be lowered. Known as the Helen Vance lawsuit, it is struck down, appealed, and struck down again. The families appealed a third time to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case.

1984

A hearing on dueling Senate bills is held in Bryson City. One bill would give Swain County a cash settlement of $9.5 million in lieu of the road. The other bill would build the road and give Swain $9.5 million to boot. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins makes the following statement at the hearing: “We are weary of making agreements that are never honored by the federal government. It is my sincere desire that Congress will at last pass our long waited for settlement of the 1943 Agreement.”

1987

Another hearing on the dueling Senate bills is held. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins recycles the same speech as three years prior.

1991

Senator Terry Sanford proposes a cash settlement of $16 million to Swain County. His bill also calls for designating 90 percent of park as wilderness.

1991

Sen. Jesse Helms introduces legislation calling for construction of the road as well as cash payments to Swain County. The bill fails, as do efforts in 1993, 1995, and 1996.

1996

Study puts cost of completing a road at between $136 and $150 million.

Summer, 2000

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County is formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. Ten people gather in the living room at Claude Douthit’s house. The group has 284 dues-paying members today.

2000

Congressman Charles Taylor slips in $16 million for road construction during the conference committee of the federal budget.

2002

The park service launches a lengthy and comprehensive environmental analysis of road construction, weighing it against a cash settlement. It would ultimately take five years and burn through $10 million of the money Taylor secured for road building.

Jan., 2003

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County hire Crisp, Hughes and Evans accounting firm to come up with a figure for the monetary settlement. They arrive at $52 million, based on the cost of the road when it was flooded, with interest and adjusted for inflation.

Feb., 2003

Swain County commissioners vote 4-1 in favor of a cash settlement of $52 million. Bryson City aldermen adopt the same resolution.

2003

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, representing one of the original signatories to the ’43 Agreement, signs on in favor of a cash settlement.

March, 2007

A coalition of Senators and Congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee sign a letter calling for a cash payoff to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

April, 2007

National Park Service announces its long-awaited decision in the lengthy environmental assessment. It comes down in favor of a cash settlement.

Dec., 2007

Congressman Heath Shuler from Western North Carolina, with the help of Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, secure $6 million as a down payment on a cash settlement as part of the 2008 fiscal year budget. The funds have not yet been remitted to Swain County, however.

2008

In preparation for a cash settlement, the N.C. General Assembly authorizes a trust fund that will safeguard the money on behalf of Swain County. The state will give the county the interest off the account annually, but the principal can’t be touched unless approved by two-thirds of voters in a countywide referendum.

2008

Park reneges on dollar amount of $52 million and lowballs Swain County in negotiations. Advocates of a cash settlement feel double-crossed. Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson digs in on his position that $52 million is too much, while Swain leaders refuse to accept anything less. Negotiations remain in a stalemate.

2009

Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates 75th anniversary. Swain County approaches its 67th year with an unsettled contract from the federal government.

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