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2007: Journey from the Road to Nowhere

2007: Journey from the Road to Nowhere

If you can’t understand why people in Swain County are distrustful of the federal government, then you are among those unfamiliar with the history of the infamous Road to Nowhere. 

There’s probably not three other words that can incite such disappointment in those Appalachian communities — an instant lowering of the eyes and shaking of the head before an old-timer begins to tell you how the government stole their land and didn’t keep their promises. 

“They told big fibs to be honest with you because they promised paradise saying you people need to move — you can have better electricity, which we didn’t have down there. Of course we didn’t care. We gave and we gave and we gave,” said Christine Cole Proctor, a descendant of a North Shore family, in a 2018 interview. 

Proctor was referring to the alleged lies the federal government and the Tennessee Valley Authority told families living in homesteads along the northern end of the counties to get them to give up their land in order to build Fontana Dam in the early 1940s. This was during a time many people were already resentful over losing land when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed in 1934. 

Then the government came back for more in 1941 when President Roosevelt authorized federal funding to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River and the TVA began land acquisitions. The hydropower was needed by Alcoa, which was producing sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes.

“Most people in Western North Carolina were very patriotic,” said another descendent, Henry Chambers. “Part of them had already volunteered to enter into the service and they were gone. WWII needed more aluminum and more power to generate it. The TVA was designated to do this for the federal government so they came to the people here who didn’t have much money but felt it was their patriotic duty to help the war effort. Some land they paid for and some they didn’t. If you owed back taxes they took the land for what you owed.” 

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The creation of Fontana Lake made those old homesteads and family cemeteries inaccessible to the people that were pushed closer into Bryson City, but the federal government did promise folks that a new road would be built that would connect residents to their heritage and ancestors’ gravesites. 

The new route was supposed to be a 26-mile route from Bryson City to Tennessee following Fontana Lake’s shore through the national park. The State of North Carolina constructed a road from Bryson City to the national park boundary in 1959, laying the groundwork for the park to pick up construction. 

Congressman Roy A. Taylor secured $8 million for construction of the North Shore Road a year later and then NPS picked up where the state left off with the road construction. However, by 1962 the NPS issued a report stating “it appears to be in the public interest to seriously reconsider the plan” to build the road.

Construction completely stopped in 1968 after only seven miles of the road had been completed — thus the Road to Nowhere was born. The $8 million was quickly eaten up and the chance of securing additional funding was slim with so many environmental concerns surrounding the project.

During the early 1970s, Swain County leaders continued to lobby state and congressional representatives to honor the 1943 agreement, but efforts weren’t going anywhere. It appeared more plausible to get a cash settlement, which is what then Gov. James Holshouser proposed in 1975. During a visit to Washington, D.C., a Swain County attorney threw out a starting figure of $25 million, but a NPS representative refused to negotiate.

Thanks to a visit to Swain County in 1978, Secretary of the Department of the Interior Cecil Andrus returned to D.C. to appoint a committee to explore the controversial agreement. Andrus proposed a $9.8 million settlement based on the value of the road in 1940. Other congressmen introduced bills for a cash settlement but the legislation never made it out of one chamber or the other. 

Meanwhile the National Park Service was still spending a lot of time and money analysing other options to appease Swain County while minimizing the potential environmental impacts on park land and wildlife. The park offered to build a four-mile road with a cultural heritage center, picnic area, boat dock and visitor center facilities for $93 million, but Swain County people made it clear they weren’t interested in a compromise. 

The “Build the Road” coalition was strengthened with support from U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard. As the chairman of the Department of Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, people were sure he could get the funding needed to rebuild the road. He had already gotten $16 million into the 2000 budget toward the project. 

However, two of the parties that signed off on the 1943 agreement to rebuild the road — Swain County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Mike Easley on behalf of the state — had formally thrown their support behind the cash settlement. The TVA — the fourth party to sign the original agreement — remained neutral on the issue but most assumed the quasi-federal corporation would side with the NPS if pressed to take sides. 

While the argument over the right path forward continued, the families of those driven from the land continued to go to great lengths to visit their homesteads and cemeteries. Descendants formed the North Shore Cemeteries Association in 1978 and began organizing decoration days for more than 20 family cemeteries along the North Shore of Fontana Lake. 

“It’s a traditional Appalachian decoration — we designate a day to go and clean the cemetery off and put fresh flowers on the graves and hold a small service,” Chambers said.

Getting to the cemeteries has been a struggle through the years, especially as the descendants get older. In the beginning, the association was on its own — using their own boats to get across the lake and then walking for up to an hour and a half to reach cemeteries with all the supplies they needed in hand. Now the park service is more involved in helping the groups by providing transportation across the lake and offering a park trail crew to assist people to some of the harder to reach cemeteries using ATVs. 

A four-mile road with a visitors center wasn’t going to make the descendants’ annual pilgrimages any easier. They wanted the entire road built to make it easier for them to stay connected to their family roots and heritage. A promise is a promise, after all. 

Fast forward to 2000 — the road still isn’t built and negotiations aren’t going anywhere. As discussions are ongoing, the cost of constructing a road continues to increase. A 1996 study placed the cost of completing a road at between $136 million and $150 million. By 2005, the road completion was estimated to cost $375 million.

 

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U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, (from left) Swain County Commission Chairman Phil Carson, Rep. Mike Clampitt, Sen. Jim Davis, Rep. Kevin Corbin and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis pose for a $35.2 million check presentation to Swain County, closing out the North Shore Road settlement in July 2018. Jessi Stone photo

 

Many in Swain County began to see the writing on the wall, and Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. The group hired Crisp, Hughes and Evans accounting firm in 2003 to come up with a figure for the monetary settlement. They arrived at $52 million, based on the cost of the road when it was flooded, with interest and adjusted for inflation.

The Swain County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of accepting a $52 million settlement with Commissioner David Monteith being the lone holdout for the road. 

After completing a lot of environmental studies and spending millions of dollars, the National Park Service finally decided in 2007 that a cash settlement was the way to go, though park officials disagreed with the $52 million amount. 

An agreement for the $52 million was finally agreed upon in 2010 and the county received its first installment payment of $12.8 million, which was placed into a trust fund within the state treasury to safeguard the money on behalf of Swain County. The county can only draw off the interest off the account each year, but the principal can’t be touched unless approved by two-thirds of voters in a countywide referendum. 

Things were looking up for Swain County as residents and leaders began talking about how the money should be spent. With $12.8 million in the account, the county could expect $200,000 to $300,000 a year in interest. But excitement soon waned when years passed without another installment being paid out from the federal government. 

County leaders realized they’d have to prepare for another battle to get the government to live up to its latest promise, which was way more ironclad than the agreement made in 1943. The deal was that the NPS, under the Department of Interior, was supposed to make $4 million annual payments to Swain County through 2020 to meet the settlement agreement, but the allocations kept getting held hostage during the budget process in D.C. Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, got the money appropriated twice in the NPS budget, but both times it  was rescinded after being caught up in an across-the-board clamp down on earmarks.

Then the money was left out of President Barack Obama’s budget for the next couple of years.

Six more years passed without any funds being appropriated to Swain County. Knowing the settlement agreement would be expiring in 2020, Swain County commissioners filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior in 2016 claiming a breach of contract. The case was dismissed after a federal court found the federal government had not yet breached the contract since it doesn’t expire until 2020. 

The lawsuit did seem to get things moving again, as did a push from U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, and Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. 

A $4 million installment was made to Swain County in September 2017 and President Donald Trump announced in February 2018 that the rest of the settlement would be included in his 2018-19 budget. Swain officials were still hesitant to believe another promise from the government but this one actually came through. Swain officials traveled to D.C. in late 2017 to get a check for $4 million and the following summer, D.C. officials traveled to Bryson City to deliver the remaining $35.2 million owed to Swain County just before the July 4 holiday. 

Swain County still has one more hurdle to jump in order to collect the full interest from the $52 million sitting in a Raleigh account. The State Treasurer has a differing opinion on the interpretation of the legislation that established the account specifically for Swain County. 

That interpretation is twofold — that the county can only invest its fund in a Bond Index Fund or the Short Term Investment and that the county can draw down on the interest each fiscal year but the amount can’t exceed the amount drawn in the last fiscal year. Now that the fund has grown from $12.8 million to $52 million, the interpretation of the law could keep the county stuck at only drawing around $300,000 a year instead of several million a year. 

Commissioners recently passed a resolution requesting that the North Carolina General Assembly modify Senate Bill 1646 to clarify the interpretation to allow Swain County to earn more interest and draw on all the interest each year. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, introduced S307 March 20 to change the legislation. As of this week it was still stuck in the rules and operations committee, but County Manager Kevin King said he expects it to pass during this year’s session. 

When it comes to how the county plans to spend the additional income in the future, Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead said the county is beginning a strategic planning process to see what the county’s needs are for the next five to 10 years. That process, which will include a lot of public input, will determine how the county will spend the interest money from the North Shore fund. 

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