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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.

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“The 1943 Agreement is hereby extinguished and superseded and shall be of no further effect,” the new agreement states.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

Treadway, Reidmiller run unopposed

This year’s elections in Bryson City will be a cinch for Alderwoman Stephanie Treadway and Alderman Tom Reidmiller. Both are running unopposed to retain their seats on the board.

Treadway, a 40-year old insurance agent with Allman Insurance, has been an alderwoman for almost 12 years. She said she’d like to continue working on improving the town’s water and sewer facilities. She also would like to see more streetscape work done, especially on Main Street.

Reidmiller, 68, is a retired Ford dealership owner who has served as alderman for more than four years. Reidmiller was appointed to the board in 2005 to fill a vacancy.

Reidmiller said his number one priority was to set up a “more efficient” water system. He said he decided to run again because he believed his business experience could contribute to the town’s success.

New bike shop opens in Bryson

Andy Zivinsky and Diane Cutler were determined to move to the mountains.

Their passion for all things outdoors was making the Raleigh area increasingly ill-suited to the type of lifestyle they wanted.

“We were only taking an outdoor trip once a month and it wasn’t enough. That was only 12 fishing trips or 12 backpacking trips a year, and we wanted that to be the main part of our life,” Cutler said.

Between mountain biking, bird watching, hiking, camping, rock climbing and fly-fishing, they couldn’t get it all in during weekend trips consumed by driving back and forth across the state. Last year, they spent a week of vacation backpacking and fishing on Hazel Creek in the Smokies and romping through Joyce Kilmer.

But it was a trip into Bryson City that sealed their fate.

“It was a kind of fluke. We had been backpacking for four days and thought ‘We could use a shower and comfortable bed,’” Cutler recounted. “When we got into Bryson City our jaw dropped and we were like this is where we want to live. It is small and it wasn’t real polished. It wasn’t yuppie.”

Cutler said it had just what they were looking for: lots of outdoor recreation every direction you turned.

“Some people look for good schools, some people look for great restaurants or art and culture, but our thing is outdoor recreational activity and this place has everything — paddling and hiking and biking and fishing and bird watching,” Cutler said.

Zivinsky was also impressed with how unpretentious it is in Bryson.

“We decided, ‘Wow this was just the best place in the world.’ It wasn’t built up and over exposed,” Zivinsky said. “We tried to find jobs and that didn’t exactly happen so we decided to make jobs.”

In the Raleigh area, Zivinsky worked at a tire store and Cutler worked for a non-profit energy efficiency firm, which she has stayed on with as a consultant.

But “Andy had always wanted to have a bike shop,” Cutler said.

So the couple could hardly believe their luck when they not only stumbled into the town of their dreams but found it lacked a bike store.

There are already two bike stores within 15 miles: Motion Makers in Sylva and the NOC bike shop in the Nantahala Gorge. But Cutler and Zivinsky think there is enough market share to go around.

“We don’t want to come in and step on anybody’s toes,” Cutler said.

Motion Makers in particular has a long-standing and loyal clientele. Cutler sees their Bryson City bike shop catering to a different type of customer, however, citing their emphasis on mountain bikes and bike rentals versus the more serious road biker.

The new bike shop owners want their store to fill a void for the greater Swain County biking community as a gathering place. They hope the shop will serve as a home base for bike riders new to the area looking for routes. The bike shop will have free trail maps and directions to trailheads, as well as a computer for riders to print out maps of their choosing.

“You can waste an awful lot of time trying to figure out where to ride and which direction to ride,” said Zivinsky

“Even people who have been coming here for years had no clue there was anywhere to ride other than Tsali.”

As jacks-of-all-trades when it comes to outdoor recreation, they know how hard it can be to stuff all your gear for a trip into one vehicle. Between kayaks and climbing gear and backpacks and tents and coolers, a bike rack thrown into the mix, especially for a whole family, can be the breaking point.

So the bike shop will rent bikes of all sorts, including all the gear from helmets to a repair bag.

“It is turnkey,” Zivinsky said. “You get everything you need.”

It will also be good for novice riders who might not think to travel with their bikes, but once here, would like to ride.

Swain backs down from hardline stance with Bryson City Fire Department

Swain County will continue contracting with the Bryson City Fire Department to provide county fire service, despite threatening to cut ties with the department after it asked the county for more money.

Earlier this year, the county balked at a request from the town fire department to up the amount of its contract from $40,000 to $70,000 per year for fire protection provided to county residents outside the town limits of Bryson City.

County Manager Kevin King countered that the county would not only not pay more, but would cancel the contract altogether and build two new fire stations of its own — all by July 1 of this year. It was an ambitious plan to choose a site and build the stations in just four months, especially since the county didn’t have any money set aside to do so.

Not surprisingly, the plan did not materialize quickly enough, causing the county to renew its contract with the town department for another year.

“West Swain is trying to develop a plan to do a satellite station in the outlying areas, but right now, it’s just not developed yet,” explained King. “We just needed an extension of time with the Bryson City Fire Department in order for them to do that, so they asked the town a few months ago if they’d be willing to entertain a year’s extension.”

The town fire department agreed, though it won’t be getting any of the additional money it had initially requested. Still, Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes said he was satisfied with the outcome. The town gets to retain its call volume and won’t loose county funding.

“I think it comes to a real good agreement, not just for us, but for the taxpayers and everybody,” said Hughes.

The contract also includes one important change — it provides the Bryson City department with more flexibility in how it spends county dollars. Before, the majority of the county’s money could only be spent on certain things: specifically, the maintenance of two trucks and half the cost of the building maintenance.

Now, “we just bill them quarterly and get our whole $40,000 that way,” Hughes said. “It’s giving us some more flexibility.” For instance, the town department can spend money on gear and radios rather than truck and building maintenance, if it determines one need is greater than the other.

“In a roundabout way, they did up the money,” by providing more flexibility, Hughes said.

However, the county has warned that the arrangement with the town won’t last longer than it has to. Instead, it’s just a stopgap to give the county more time to hammer out its plans to build new fire stations of its own.

“The county is looking at long-term fire planning for the entire county over the next five years,” King said. “Basically, we just passed the year’s contract to give us another 12 months to work on the long-range planning process.”

Hughes is skeptical that the county’s plan to build two new fire stations will work. He wonders how the county will get the money for the project, since there are already capital projects like the senior center that sit uncompleted.

“Already, they have a building they can’t finish, and now they’re applying to build another building,” Hughes mused.

Ellison came to WNC as a ‘Kephart pilgrim’

While George and Elizabeth Ellison are fixtures in Bryson City today — Elizabeth as a renowned artist and George as a writer and naturalist — their journey to the region 30 years ago was little more than happenstance.

The Ellisons rode in on the back-to-the-land movement, setting up house and raising a family in a rural cabin lacking running water or electricity. While it was ultimately a lifestyle that fit them perfectly, they landed here initially while on a quest of a different sort.

George Ellison first set foot in Bryson City in 1976, partly on a writing assignment and partly on a personal pilgrimage to the old stomping grounds of Horace Kephart, a famed writer who immersed himself in the culture of backwoods mountaineers a century ago. Kephart’s writing chronicled the distinct mountain culture and dialect and described the wilderness landscape — a rich subject matter than catapulted him onto the national stage as an outdoors adventure writer.

Ellison was commissioned to research the life of Kephart and write an introduction for a reprint of Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders. While Ellison had long been enamored with Kephart’s writing, he landed the assignment somewhat by luck. Ellison was teaching at Mississippi State University in the mid-19070s when small talk at an English Association meeting arrived on the subject of Kephart.

A visiting scholar from the University of Tennessee Press was in the room, and like Ellison, was a Kephart follower. A reissue of Our Southern Highlanders had been percolating in the background, but hinged on finding someone to write an introduction that would set the stage for the new printing.

“We got to talking and he said, ‘Gosh, I found someone with an interest in Kephart. Can you do the introduction?’” Ellison recalled.

Ellison gladly, but skeptically, accepted. Kephart’s life had largely been an enigma. Little was known about the man before he abruptly appeared in Swain County and settled amongst the people there. Kephart had left few clues of his own.

“I thought it would be a situation where I couldn’t find enough to write an introduction. All I’d found before was a couple book reviews and a little sketch of his life,” Ellison said. “No one had done a coherent depiction of his life before he came here.”

Kephart was a major player in the movement to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so one of Ellison’s first moves was to seek out the park’s historian and archivist, Don DeFoe.

“I walked in and said ‘Does anyone here know anything about Horace Kephart?’ and his eyes lit up. It was like he’d been waiting for me for years,” Ellison said.

DeFoe led Ellison downstairs to the basement of park headquarters outside Gatlinburg, Tenn., and opened the door of a damp storage room.

“There were boxes of Kephart stuff molding away, all this stuff was sitting there rotting away,” Ellison said of the room, which had visible water leaks.

Along with boxes of Kephart’s prized journals, containing meticulous notes on everything from local dialect to plant uses, were many of Kephart’s personal items.

Ellison’s quest to piece together Kephart’s life soon led him to a host of closet Kephart fans, each eager to share what they could.

“I felt like a little Dutch boy running around sticking my finger in the dike,” Ellison said. “It was overwhelming, because I had a project where I didn’t know what I was going to write about and suddenly I had more than enough.”

Ellison’s research ultimately revealed the life and times of Kephart and postulates on the motives that precipitated his move to live among the mountaineers.

“No one knew his story until I put it together, not in that kind of detail and context,” Ellison said.

Ellison’s own writing career was launched on the coattails of Kephart. The introduction earned him instant recognition and esteem with exactly the audience that Ellison was suited for, an audience as enthralled with the mountain landscape and cultural history as Ellison was.

In recent years, Kephart has been transformed from a nearly forgotten historical figure to a folk hero of sorts.

Ellison helped facilitate a transfer of the national park’s Kephart materials to Western Carolina University, which provided a proper archival repository for the valuable historical collection both in the Hunter Library Special Collections and Mountain Heritage Center.

Ellison spent a lot of time in Bryson City researching Kephart, enough to realize the town could give him and his wife, Elizabeth, the lifestyle they were looking for.

“She wanted to paint full time and not be pigeon-holed as a professor’s wife. I always wanted to be a writer,” Ellison said. “I said ‘Bryson City is really a nice little town. Let’s give it a shot.’”

Ellison denies that he set out to be a modern-day Kephart.

“I didn’t come here because I fell in love with Kephart. I came here because I fell in love with the region,” Ellison said.

Swain leaders divided on contentious fire station plan

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Two Swain County commissioners are having second thoughts about a move to end contracted fire service with the town of Bryson City after listening to the impassioned pleas of volunteer firefighters who shared their comments at a meeting last week.

Town officials had requested more money from the county to match the high number of calls firefighters were answering outside town limits. The county instead proposed ending the contract altogether and building two new stations of its own, leaving firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department up in arms.

Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith were initially supportive of the proposal to build a new station at the industrial park and in the Ela community, but emerged from the meeting with changed minds after hearing a group of Bryson City firefighters air their concerns.

“Those guys have been here a long time, and I think their wishes should be given full attention, and should even maybe take priority,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “And I was all for building those substations before the meeting Monday night. I’ve changed my mind.”

Moon had qualms about the timing of the project, which will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to build the stations and buy two fire trucks.

“I don’t think it’s the right time with the state of the economy and our county, and the passion some of these firefighters feel for their fire department,” he said. “Maybe we should table it for a year.”

Monteith also was less sure of the proposal following the meeting.

“I went to that meeting feeling pretty good about what I wanted, but came out and there’s still some answers I need to get,” Monteith said.

Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said he felt commissioners learned something from the meeting.

“I’m not saying someone lied to them, but I think they had some misleading information, and I think we cleared that up and they listened,” he said.

The county’s plan to create new fire stations was largely spearheaded by County Manager Kevin King.

Hughes also questions the project’s timing.

“Maybe one day this might be the right thing to do, but right now it’s not with the economy the way it is,” he said.

Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones, however, did not appear to waver in his support of the new fire stations. In fact, he didn’t realize others on the board no longer supported it.

“I think the consensus of the board is that we’re going to contract with West Swain, but we haven’t voted on it,” Jones said.

Under the proposal, the county would contract with the West Swain Fire Department. The station would be in charge of applying for loans to fund the new stations and two new trucks, as well as hiring someone to construct the stations.

Jones did not have reservations about the county’s ability to pay the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 the new stations and trucks would cost. The county will divert what it currently contributes to the Bryson and Qualla departments to make loan payments on the new stations, and would only kick in an extra $20,000 over what it pays now.

“I believe that we can handle that, yes,” he said.

The positions of Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay and Phillip Carson are not known.

 

More discussion likely

Moon said he saw a need for more town involvement in making a decision over county fire service. Hughes has bemoaned a lack of communication between the county and town.

For example, a state fire inspector met with county officials several months ago to provide his opinion on county fire service. The Bryson Fire Department was never informed, Hughes said.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Hughes said. “If they had wanted to improve something, why didn’t they include everybody in it?”

Moon urged more town input in the process, and was surprised there hadn’t been.

“I thought that they would be more involved, but they did seem caught off-guard, which is another reason to table it,” said Moon. “We need to work together, not as two separate entities.”

“We need some good old sit down coffee drinking meeting to hammer out everything,” Monteith agreed.

In the mean time, Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said the town board is considering its options should the county decide to terminate its contract, which is worth $47,000 per year. If the county did so, the town fire department would lose about two-thirds of its call volume, and the number of volunteers needed would likely be reduced.

“We don’t know where we are going, but we have two options,” said Walker. “Either go with the new (county) entity, or make a smaller fire department.”

Walker said the town board will meet with the state fire marshal on March 16 to discuss options.

Meanwhile, the county is in no rush to make a decision. Initially, the county had wanted to get the first new station up and running by mid-summer, said County Manager Kevin King. But with both Moon and Monteith wanting to look into other options, that timeline will likely be pushed back.

“I think the public needs to know more about it,” Monteith said.

Moon said this is one of the biggest challenges commissioners have dealt with in a long while, and it’s keeping him up at night.

“Several nights I’ve laid awake,” Moon said. “I want to do the right thing, for our citizens and our people, and I pray about it. I pray for the Lord’s guidance.”

 

“If it ain’t broke...”

Hughes says he’s representing the wishes of his 34 volunteer firemen in speaking out against the project.

“I wouldn’t be trying to fix something that ain’t broke,” Hughes said.

Hughes also promised that his volunteers won’t leave the Bryson City Fire Department to join the ranks of firefighters at the new county stations, and expressed doubt about the county’s ability to staff the stations.

“The ones that are already in my department, they’re not leaving,” Hughes said.

Hughes says the county proposal would duplicate services. An Ela station would cover the same area the Qualla Fire Department already covers. A new station at the industrial park would also duplicate service that already exists, being “so close” to the Bryson City Fire Department, Hughes said.

If Hughes had his way, he would build additional stations in different locations than the county proposed. In order of importance, Hughes would place substations in Laurel Branch, on the west end of the Gorge, in Brushy Creek, and in Whittier.

Swain pushes Bryson fire department aside in turf war

Prominently displayed in the window of the Bryson City Fire Department last week were several signs with the same defiant words: “We serve people, not politics.”

The message was a direct reference to a controversy heating up between the town’s volunteer fire department and Swain County commissioners. The two are at odds over how much the county should contribute to the fire department for handling calls outside the town limits. When the Bryson fire department recently asked for more, the county decided it would stop contributing altogether come July. Instead, Swain County will build two new fire stations and buy two new trucks of its own. It will stop contributing to the existing fire stations in Bryson City and Qualla to fund the new ones.

Since 1992, the county has contributed to the Bryson City Fire Department since it provides service beyond the town limits. It is one of three fire stations in the county, along with one in West Swain and one in Alarka. According to Bryson City fire chief Joey Hughes, the Bryson Fire Department was responding to the lion’s share of calls — nearly two-thirds of the total.

“We’ve run more calls in a month than other departments run in a year,” Hughes said.

The county paid the Bryson City department $47,000 this year.

In December, the town fire department asked the county to up the amount to $70,000 to reflect the high volume of calls the department was responding to.

“The letter indicated that they needed more money to operate the department, that they weren’t getting enough to do it,” said County Manager Kevin King.

Instead of responding to the fire department’s request, the county has opted to end their contract altogether starting July 1.

“If we’re going to spend that type of money, it would be better to increase services outside the city limit,” King said.

The county’s new plan is to create a larger, unified department with no involvement from the town. The goal: provide more comprehensive fire service and decrease fire insurance rates for residents.

But Hughes and his department say the county’s decision isn’t a good one. They say the county doesn’t have a sufficient setup to handle the volume of services the town department currently provides. The decision will hurt the town department, they say, but more importantly, it will compromise the safety of Swain’s residents.

“Our budget will be cut in half, and our calls will be cut by two-thirds under the decision,” said Hughes. “We’re not going to be hurting that bad, but it’s the citizens of Swain County that are going to suffer.”

The town of Bryson City contributed $42,000 to the fire department this year.

 

Dueling fire stations

The county’s new plan calls for buying two new fire trucks and building two new firestations — one in the Ela community, and one at the county’s industrial park. The West Swain fire department will oversee the plan.

West Swain will borrow about $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the project. The county plans to funnel the resources it is giving to the Bryson City and the Qualla fire departments to help cover the loan payments.

In addition to the cost of building the fire stations and buying the trucks, the new plan would cost the county an additional $20,000 per year, which it plans to factor into next year’s budget. Ideally, at least one of the new substations would be up in running in just five months, King said — roughly the time the town’s contract expires.

King said the new stations will mean decreased response times, which in turn would save county residents about $600,000 each year on their fire insurance premiums, King said.

Under the new plan, rescue equipment such as a Jaws of Life would be available at each of the substations, providing residents with an added safety feature.

But Hughes doesn’t think the county’s plan is feasible, and questions why they’re trying to change something that has proven effective — or why they would want to duplicate a service that’s already in place.

“We know what we’ve got works, and what they’re trying to do is untested,” Hughes said. “What they’ve already got is best for the taxpayer. You’re not crossing district lines, and there’s not going to be a controversy.”

Indeed, King argues that Hughes and his department don’t like the new plan in large part because it would mean others would infringe on territory the town department has covered for years.

“They’re just upset because they’ve had that territory for a long time, and they’re not going to be a part of the solution,” King said.

But Hughes said the county never asked his department to be part of the solution.

“Whenever they started planning all this, they didn’t include the town or our fire department in this; they went to the other fire departments and talked to them about it,” he said.

Hughes doubts the county’s ability to execute its plan with the money allocated.

“With that dollar figure, there’s no way under the sun that they can do it,” Hughes said.

And though King said he has assurances from the county substations that they’ll have enough personnel, Hughes wonders if the stations can recruit the manpower to pull it off. His station currently has 34 volunteers; the other two have eight.

“They’ll get enough names on paper, but getting enough qualified, dedicated people is going to be a problem to keep up the response time that we’ve got now,” Hughes contends. “This day and time, it’s hard to get volunteers that are reliable and good at what they do.”

Hughes said it’s critical to have a big pool of volunteers to pull from, because most work full-time. If a fire emergency happens during a weekday, 10 out of 34 volunteers may show up, he said. That number would be closer to two or three volunteers if the same percentage showed up at a smaller station.

Hughes planned to reason with commissioners to keep the Bryson City Fire Department’s contract at a special called meeting Monday night (March 2). But while Hughes calls the county’s new plan, “a shady deal,” King said the fire department has blown the whole thing out of proportion.

“They’re trying to turn it into something it actually is not,” he said. “We’re talking about public safety for the entire county in an effective manner.”

New polling place to end Cherokee voters’ commute to Bryson

People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.

The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.

A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.

“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.

When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.

“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.

A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.

Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.

Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.

The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.

“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.

Bryson halts sewer connections outside town limits

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Developers in Swain County eyeing a quick, easy connection to Bryson City’s sewer system for their newly built properties are out of luck — at least for now. Bryson’s town board is currently denying sewer services to anyone that lives outside of the immediate town limits.

The essential nature of winter

When late November finally arrives, my wife, Elizabeth, and I go into another mode. Her busy season in the gallery-studio she operates here on the town square in Bryson City pretty much comes to an end. The Elderhostel programs, workshops and lectures that keep me on the road from mid-March into November come to an abrupt halt. From now until early spring we get to spend more time together at our home place in a little cove four miles west of town. Winter is our time of the year.

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The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.