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Road to Nowhere crusade over at last

A defining moment in the decades-long debate over the North Shore Road will play out in Swain County this week.

Commissioners are slated to vote in favor of a cash settlement from the federal government in lieu of building the controversial road — ending Swain’s bitter 66-year battle once and for all.

“It will be a historic vote for the county,” said Swain County Chairman Glenn Jones.

The vote will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 5, at the county administration building. On Saturday afternoon, a signing ceremony is planned to ink a new agreement with the federal government.

Under the cash settlement, Swain would get $12.8 million now and a total of up to $52 million by the year 2020 — the full amount that Swain has been seeking as compensation.

“The completion of this agreement will be the most significant event in the history of Swain County and certainly the most positive,” said Leonard Winchester, an advocate of the cash settlement and chair of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County.

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Since the 1940s, the people of Swain County have been waiting for the federal government to rebuild a rural highway that was flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana. Failure to make good on the promise relegated Swain to relative isolation with few roads in and out, a dead-end destination hemmed in against a national park and large mountain lake.

Under the new agreement, Swain County will forgo its long-standing claim for the road under an old agreement with the federal government dating back to 1943.

“The 1943 Agreement is hereby extinguished and superseded and shall be of no further effect,” the new agreement states.

The lone vote against accepting the cash settlement will come from Commissioner David Monteith, an ardent supporter of building the road.

“My heritage is not for sale,” Monteith said.

Many families who once lived in the North Shore area before it was made part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are deeply resentful of any attempt to let the government off the hook.

Monteith is skeptical that Swain will get a penny more than the $12.8 million currently on the table. In the 1943 agreement, the federal government pledged to rebuild the flooded road “as soon as” Congress appropriated money to do so — not exactly a hard and fast promise.

The new agreement is likewise vague, stating that Swain will get “additional sums” as appropriated by Congress not to exceed the grand total of $52 million.

“It is a sellout to say ‘if and when’ funds are made available,” Monteith said. “It is the same as before. It is not worth the paper it is written on.”

But Jones said the agreement to be voted on Friday gives Swain far more leverage to collect than the old 1943 agreement ever did.

Through a clever bit of lawyering in the 1943 agreement, the federal government inserted a hold-harmless clause stating: “failure on the part of Congress for any reason to make such appropriations shall not constitute a breach or violation of this agreement.”

The new agreement contains no such hold-harmless clause. In fact, it says the opposite.

“This Agreement is binding on the parties, through their officials, agents, employees and successors,” the new agreement states.

It was important language that the county fought hard to get inserted this time around. Also in the new agreement, the government admits that the cash settlement is being offered as a substitute for the road it never rebuilt.

“At least the federal government has made a commitment and they are saying ‘We do owe Swain County’,” Jones said. “If it is not all paid, I think you would have a leg to stand on.”

To make good on the promise of a full $52 million by 2020, Congress would have to appropriate an additional $39.2 million over and above the $12.8 million that’s been secured already. It amounts to about $4 million a year.

Winchester said he is hopeful that will come to fruition. Instead of being left up to Congress, Winchester said the $4 million appropriation for 2011 appears in the President’s budget.

Jones said he was “very confident” that additional annual payments will be made to Swain County.

Money received from the cash settlement will be placed in a trust fund with the N.C. State Treasury. The state will remit interest off the account to Swain County, but the principal cannot be touched unless supported by two-thirds of registered voters in Swain County. The interest off $12.8 million would be close to $800,000 a year.

Whether Congress ever makes good on the agreement could depend on a congressman from Western North Carolina effectively lobbying for it. To date, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a Swain County native, has done just that.

“He’s the one we have to give the credit to,” Jones said.

The $12.8 million already on the table for Swain was secured by Shuler. Shuler also worked hard to negotiate the agreement being voted on Friday.

During initial talks, the park service was reluctant to sign on to a new agreement that included the dollar figure of $52 million, but Shuler lobbied for the past year to bring them around.

“We appreciate the exceptionally hard work of Rep. Heath Shuler and his staff to bring this matter to closure in a way that will benefit all the citizens of Swain County forever,” Winchester said.


Some background

When the federal government flooded a road leading from Bryson City to Tennessee with the construction of Lake Fontana in the 1940s, it signed an agreement promising to rebuild it one day, but only completed a small segment.

Historically, the flooded road connected many small communities, but the territory was evacuated and made part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Building a new road today would mean traversing some 30 miles of Smokies backcountry. It would carry a price tag of more than $600 million.

The $52 million cash settlement sought by Swain is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation.

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