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Legal wrangling heats up in Jackson’s bid to wrest Dillsboro dam away from Duke

Jackson County and Duke Energy squared off this week over the Dillsboro dam, marking the first major head-to-head courtroom battle in the nearly eight-year saga.

Duke Energy wants to tear down the Dillsboro Dam, while Jackson County hopes to save the historic landmark as the focal point of a riverfront park.

Jackson County devoted part of its court time this week to pleading with the judge for a restraining order that would prevent Duke from tearing down the Dillsboro dam.

It could be months before Jackson County gets a legal ruling on its attempt to seize the dam by the power of eminent domain. By then, however, it will be too late, as Duke previously announced it would start demolition in January.

“This is a historic structure that once taken out can’t be recreated,” Attorney David Ferrell argued on behalf of the county. “It’s a structure that means a great deal to this county. The commissioners of Jackson County believe they are speaking for the citizens in trying to preserve this dam and power house. Without an injunction that’s not going to happen.”

Jackson County wants to preserve the historic dam as the focal point of a river park, replete with walking paths, fishing piers, boat docks and picnic tables.

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Kiran Mehta, a Charlotte attorney for Duke, said there would be no lasting harm to Jackson’s river park if Duke tears out the dam. If Jackson County wants a dam so much, it can build a new one in its place, Mehta said.

The protracted arguments in Superior Court this week centered on whether Jackson County can use the power of eminent domain to seize control of the dam and stop Duke from demolishing it.

Duke countered that it was obligated to tear down the dam, citing an order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“The county’s suit for condemnation is nothing more than a collateral attack upon and an end run around the FERC order,” said Mehta.

Sherin disputed Metha’s characterization of FERC’s order.

“He talks about this FERC order as if it was the tablet that Moses brought down with the Ten Commandments on it. But it’s not that,” Sherin said. “Duke asked to remove the dam. The FERC said OK.”

Sherin said FERC’s order even contains alternative provisions should circumstances change and the dam not be removed after all.

Duke argued that the interplay of federal agencies and the Federal Power Act make federal court, not state court, the proper legal venue for the case. If successful in getting the case kicked up to federal court, Duke could more easily bog down Jackson’s bid to save the dam.

Jackson County argued that state condemnation law, which gives counties the power to seize property for the creation of parks and recreation areas, stands on its own two legs.

“Duke acts as if federal pre-emption is some sort of blanket that wraps itself around this whole controversy and nullifies all of the county’s rights,” Sherin said.

Who wins and loses

Mehta said that Duke would be irreparably harmed if the dam’s removal is delayed by an injunction.

Mehta claimed Duke could be fined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if it didn’t remove the dam on schedule.

The company is currently in the process of dredging decades worth of sediment from behind the dam before its demolition, a process that might have to be repeated if more sediment accumulates during the delay. Duke also had to relocate bats that nested in the old powerhouse, which is also slated for demolition. The bats could take up residence again, prompting a second round of relocation.

Mehta put a price tag on the delays of $3.4 million in costs to Duke.

Ferrell said the claims were “disingenuous.” He said it was ludicrous to suggest Duke would be fined for failing to remove the dam, if a court order was preventing them from doing so. Ferrell asserted that the federal energy commission doesn’t really care if the dam comes down or not, having granted Duke permission at the company’s own request.

Mehta countered that there are other parties who do care immensely if the dam comes down. Removing the Dillsboro dam was a carefully crafted compromise intended to please disparate special interests concerned with the impacts of Duke’s hydropower network in the region. Duke’s permits for 10 other dams are up for renewal, and to get new permits, it had to come up with environmental mitigation that satisfied everyone. Tearing down the dam pleased environmental agencies who want to see the river restored to its natural state. It also pleased paddlers who wanted a free-flowing river.

Jackson County protested, not only out of a desire to save the historic dam, but also on the premise that another form of mitigation would benefit a greater cross section of the public, such as an environmental trust fund to pay for greenway construction along the Tuckasegee.

Mehta said Jackson lost that fight, but hasn’t been able to give up. The attempt to seize the dam for a park is a last ditch effort to bring down the hard-fought compromise, which could send Duke back to the drawing board, he argued.

“There is no way to calculate the loss that would result from a collapse of the settlement agreement,” Mehta said. “It is incalculable really.”

Ferrell called the injunction a “lynchpin” in Jackson’s case. Unless the judge grants an injunction barring Duke from destroying the dam, Jackson County will be precluded from getting its day in court down the road, Ferrell said.

“That’s what we need first and foremost,” Ferrell said.

Judge Zoro Guice, who heard the arguments in Jackson County Superior Court, said he likely wouldn’t have a decision until January.

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