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Jackson finally folds in long feud with Duke

The seven-year battle between Jackson County commissioners and Duke Energy has come to a close.

After losing a critical court battle this month, Jackson County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give up their legal fight against Duke Energy last week.

“It is not prudent for Jackson County to move forward any further,” County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said of the commissioner’s decision.

Recently, the fight has appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wants to tear it down and the county wanted to save it.

But the origin of the conflict is philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams? Duke proposed removing one of those dams — the small and ancient Dillsboro dam — as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.

Duke contends the river will be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam and it will open a new stretch of free-flowing river to paddlers and rafters.

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Therein lay the crux of the disagreement, however. The county didn’t want the dam torn down, so it should hardly count as compensation, said Commissioner Joe Cowan, who voted against giving up the fight.

“It’s a bum deal,” Cowan said. “Duke ought to be ashamed of itself as a large corporation to attempt to pull such a stunt on the intelligent people of this county. I resent the hell out of it.”

Cowan gave a strongly worded speech directed at Duke at the meeting Tuesday.

“Why did they want to take the dam down? Because they didn’t want to give the county anything,” Cowan said.

Cowan said taking down the dam was a grand scheme on Duke’s part, a ruse intended at duping local people into believing Duke was doing them a favor by taking down the dam. But Cowan said Duke was only looking out for its own monetary interests by offloading a small, aging dam instead of real mitigation.

“Had it not been for greed, there would have been no seven years of bickering with Duke Power,” Cowan said. “Duke had many opportunities to step up and do the right thing as a good neighbor would do. Duke hasn’t done that. They have resisted it.”

The other four commissioners who voted to call it quits clearly did not revel in their decision.

“Seven years has been a long time and looking back on what has transpired, I still feel as strong today about my position on saving the dam as I did then,” said McMahan. “I grew up there learning to fish. It holds a sentimental place. It is going to move into our history now. It is going to become a part of our past.”

Commissioner Tom Massie, who has been urging the rest of the board to throw in the towel for over a year now, said he hopes the county and Duke can mend fences and work together in the future.

“It is unfortunate it has gotten to this point in terms of the legal costs and wrangling that has gone on,” Massie said. “I am glad it is over with.”

It’s one statement Duke agreed with.

“We at Duke are, as one of the commissioners remarked, glad it is over with,” said Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager of Duke Energy. “About 10 more miles of free flowing Tuckaseigee River and improved aquatic habitat should benefit fishermen, boaters, and the critters in the water.”

Several members of the public took a turn the podium to thank the county commissioners for putting up a valiant fight.

“I came tonight to applaud you — applaud you for giving us leadership in your efforts to retain the Dillsboro Dam, as a historical site, as a viable source of sustainable energy and as land to be used by all the residents of Jackson County,” said Susan Leveille, an artist with a gallery in Dillsboro. “You have strived well to lead us toward the moral high ground of not just thinking of ourselves today but for making wise decisions with regard to the people, the land and the resources.”

Supporters said Jackson did the right thing by standing up to Duke, even if the cards were stacked against them.

“I also want to commend this board for doing everything they could to save the dam and the powerhouse,” said Tim Parris, a resident of Dillsboro. “I do realize you were up against a fight with a corporate giant in Duke Power — not only that but you had to fight the special interest groups like American Whitewater. The landscape is changing at Dillsboro, but I can tell you it is not what the people of Dillsboro want.”

But Sam Fowlkes, a paddler who is pleased the dam will finally come down, chastised commissioners for wasting so much money on an ill-conceived strategy.

“I am sure lawyers who get billable hours will always have more options for you, but it kind of looks like game over,” Fowlkes said prior to the board’s vote to end their legal fight.

Fowlkes said the big winner isn’t Duke, but rather Jackson County’s attorney throughout the protracted standoff.

“Win or lose, it is more money for him,” Fowlkes said. “The losers? The taxpayers. I am one of them.”

The county does not have a final tally of its legal bill, but the most recent total was between $200,000 and $250,000.

Commissioner William Shelton congratulated Duke on its win.

“I grew up on the Tuckasegee River and have watched it about every day in my life,” Shelton said. “This has been a gut wrenching experience for me. There has not been one easy thing about it.”

The county will likely not have another opportunity to extract mitigation from Duke Energy for 30 years, when the hydropower license comes up for renewal again.

Demolition of the powerhouse has been completed and dam work will start in a couple of weeks.

“It was like a knife going through my heart,” said Starlotte Deitz, a Dillsboro resident and Duke opponent, who watched the demolition last week. “It is an icon that can never be replaced. You can’t put a money value on that.”

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