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Wednesday, 04 November 2009 20:00

Swain fails to make headway in cash settlement talks

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The National Park Service and Swain County appear locked in a stalemate over how much the federal government should pay up for breaking its long-standing contract to replace a road flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana in the 1940s.

Swain County has asked for $52 million as fair compensation for the government’s refusal to honor the long-standing written promise to rebuild the road it flooded. But a meeting between Swain County and the National Park Service last week ended once again without a resolution. It is the fourth meeting held between the parties over the past 18 months.

“It is the same thing they have been doing for the past 65 years — they tell you one thing then they go back on their word,” said Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, who would rather see the road rebuilt rather than cash anyway. “I told the commissioners it was time they put their britches on. We have yet to get what we were promised.”

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the county expects $52 million and nothing less. The number was first proposed by the county in 2002. The park service later used that figure in its own literature and documents that were disseminated to the public during a comprehensive analysis of whether to rebuild the flooded road — which would traverse 30 miles through the Smokies — or compensate the county financially for the broken contract.

Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson has failed to get behind the number, however.

“Their whole mission is to get as low a number as possible,” King said. “That’s why it is called a negotiation. They are just doing their job.”

Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, would not say whether the park service endorses $52 million, or whether it opposes the amount.

“Discussion are still ongoing, aimed at coming up with an agreeable settlement amount,” Miller said.

Heading into the meeting, those following the process thought the park service might put a formal offer on the table. However, that didn’t happen. Instead, Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, will continue lobbying for the full $52 million.

“He is trying to get it worked out behind the scenes,” King said. “I think that is why the park service did not present an offer because they know the wheels of government are turning.”

The negotiations had reached an impasse last year, with the park service unwilling to get behind $52 million. Shuler intervened in hopes of getting the money appropriated anyway.

King and County Attorney Kim Lay are the only people representing Swain County who participated in the meeting, which included a dozen people representing five different parties.

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