Finally! Swain County receives North Shore settlement money
It’s a day many in Swain County didn’t think they’d ever live to see, but last Saturday county leaders were presented a check for $35.2 million for the North Shore Road settlement, ending a 70-year-old battle with the federal government.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke along with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, State Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and state Reps. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, and Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, made the trip to Bryson City to present the check at the Swain County Heritage Museum.
“This has been a long-time coming to Swain County,” said County Commission Chairman Phil Carson. “A lot of folks in this room have worked hard on getting this plan together.”
The North Shore Road issue was still a hot button item for the community when Carson was first elected to the board in 2006. At the time, the commissioners were still trying to get the federal government to live up to its first agreement with Swain County, which was to rebuild the road that was flooded during World War II in order to build Fontana Dam.
Not rebuilding the road has led to a lot of resentment from Swain County residents as they have not been able to access their family homesteads and cemeteries that their ancestors were forced to abandon for the war effort. Many residents wanted the commissioners to hold out for the road to be rebuilt, but the cost-prohibitive and environmentally controversial project just was not going to happen.
“I personally was a road proponent, but after realizing the fact they were never going to rebuild the road, I decided the settlement was the best decision for the county,” Carson said.
Swain County and the U.S. Department of Interior finalized another agreement in 2010 that would provide $52 million cash settlement to the county to be paid out in annual installments until 2020. While the county received its first installment of $12.8 million in 2010, it didn’t see another dime of the money until last year.
The money got caught up in Washington, D.C., every year — either it wouldn’t get budgeted at all or it would get budgeted to the National Park Service but wouldn’t get released to the county.
It’s an issue every Western North Carolina congressman has worked on in the last several decades, including former Congressman Heath Shuler — a Bryson City native — who was also present Saturday. When Shuler left office, Rep. Meadows carried the torch.
“This was the last thing Heath Shuler worked on when he left office and it was the first thing I did when I was elected,” Meadows said. “We testified before Congress from different parties to support an issue that should have been done a long time ago.”
Meadows said it wasn’t until Zinke was appointed to Secretary of the Interior under the Trump Administration that the issue started to once again get traction in Washington.
Swain County commissioners had already put pressure on the federal government to pay out the settlement by the 2020 deadline by filing a lawsuit against the Department of Interior back in April 2016. The county spent about $100,000 in litigation costs only for the breach of contract lawsuit to be dismissed in May 2017, but it did seem to get the ball rolling again.
In September 2017, Swain County received a $4 million payment and in February 2018, President Trump had included the remaining settlement funds in his budget proposal. Even then, officials and residents were hesitant to believe the funds would make it into the final budget.
“What an emotional moment for us here in Swain County,” Clampitt said. “It’s been a long and arduous road to get here today.”
Clampitt choked up as he started to talk about former Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, who was an adamant proponent of getting the road rebuilt and later fought tooth and nail to get the government to pay out the settlement funds. It was Monteith’s number one priority during his 20 years in office, but he passed away in March 2017 before being able to see the conclusion of his hard work.
“David was a road builder believer, I know he’s smiling on us today and blessed us with this good weather,” Clampitt said.
Tillis thanked everyone for their leadership in getting the issue resolved after so many years, including Shuler, the current congressmen and their staff and especially Secretary Zinke.
“Ryan (Zinke) is connected to the people across this country and he’s made a huge change in the department,” Tillis said.
Zinke assured the crowd gathered at the museum that they were being well-represented in Washington, D.C., by their congressmen and President Trump. Originally from Whitefish, Montana, he said he understood the frustration people in rural America were feeling.
“There’s a lot of anger about the government not following through,” Zinke said. “But this is our government. Government only exists if our people trust we’re going to do the right thing.”
With the North Shore Road settlement behind them, Zinke said Swain County can now focus on the future and other important goals — perhaps a new campground at the end of the infamous Road to Nowhere.
Carson reminded everyone that the settlement funds are kept in an account in the State Treasury and the county is only allowed to use the interest from the money every year. While the interest on the $12.8 million sitting in the account is about $200,000 to $300,000 a year depending on the economy, having interest collecting on the entire sum will no doubt benefit the county’s annual budget.
“This is your money Swain County — 75 percent of the voters are needed to be able to spend any of the principal,” Carson said. “But hopefully this will help future generations not have to pay higher tax rates to be able to live here.”