Swain and Graham strike deal over ambulance service to motorcycle Mecca

Swain County is nearing the end of an ongoing saga with neighboring Graham County over who will provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap.

The sparring counties reached a tentative agreement last week pending approval by both boards.

According to the agreement, Swain will reimburse Graham $250 for each time it sends an ambulance to Deal’s Gap, as well as pay any portion of ambulance bills that is uncollectible.

“It is good news. We can still be a friend to Swain County and help them out in that area but in this case we are being fairly compensated,” said Steve Odom, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

In exchange, Graham will also reimburse Swain for taking care of emergency calls at Graham’s Tsali mountain biking area, which is closer to Swain.

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, called it a fair agreement and said he expects commissioners to approve the plan next week.

Deal’s Gap — an outlying Swain territory that is completely bordered by Graham — receives droves of thrill-seeking motorcyclists headed to the Dragon and Hellbender, world-famous sections of winding roads. But it would take an ambulance 45 minutes to get there from Swain, so Graham has long provided emergency services to the territory.

Graham was being hit in the pocketbook by routinely covering all 911 calls to the area and grew weary of responding to an increasing number of serious wrecks. Each time Graham sends an ambulance out of the county to the remote Deals Gap territory, “We have to call in backup crews to cover our own county,” Odom said.

And patients treated don’t always pay their ambulance bill.

“A lot of times we are left holding the bag,” Odom said.

Odom said Swain was taking advantage of Graham. The county proposed everything from annexing the territory to demanding $80,000 annually from Swain.

But Swain County claimed it was incurring its own expenses transporting Graham patients to area hospitals from the Tsali campground.

After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Graham decided to drop all emergency services to the area in January. Swain leaders retreated from their line in the sand and said for the first time, they would be willing to negotiate.

But according to King, the two decided to cooperate again after a rockslide shut down the Dragon.

“A lot of conversation came out of those few days it was closed,” said King.

While King is unsure on why Graham County backed down from its initial demands, he suspects the county could not find figures to back up their initial request, which he called extravagant.

Before the tentative agreement was reached, Swain’s rescue squad had independently collaborated with the Steacoah rescue squad to come up with an agreement of its own. Stecoah would provide first-responder coverage to the area until Swain could make the long drive to Deal’s Gap.

King said the new arrangement will again solidify the relationship between the two counties.

“We’re all mountain people and trying to reach an agreement,” said King.

Becky Johnson contributed to this article.

Swain commissioner candidates

Democratic candidates, pick four

Steve Moon, 59, owner of a tire shop, incumbent

Moon is finishing up his first term as commissioner and has served on the school board for six years. Moon said he’d like to be re-elected to make sure the interest from the North Shore road settlement is used wisely. “I wouldn’t want to hand the reigns over to anybody else.”

Tommy Woodard, 51, owner of construction company

Woodard said his main goal is to represent the interests and desires of Swain County residents. Woodard freely admits that he would like to bring his Christian values and ethics to the board of commissioners. “Whether you agree or disagree, it would only be fair to you that you know where I stand.”

Raymond Nelson, 63, retired U.S. Navy officer

Nelson said politicians should stop pointing fingers and start tackling problems. His main goal is to save taxpayer money through efficient use of county employees and equipment. For example, he’d like to use county engineers and workers to repair a sinkhole in front of the jail rather than paying for private labor.

Donnie Dixon, 64, tool and dye maker/machinist

Dixon was a commissioner for one term in the early ‘90s. He’s running to provide good leadership during tough economic times. Dixon would like to bring high-paying jobs to the county, create a more open government with televised meetings, and focus on setting long-term goals.

Robert White, 70, retired school superintendent

White says he has spent countless hours working on budgets, communicating with both staff and community and creating a strategic plan for Swain’s schools. He would like to create an ad hoc committee of citizens to look at the Swain’s future needs, help create a strategic plan, and guide commissioners in their decisions.

Judy Miller, 62, retired psychotherapist

Miller would like to see staggered terms for county commissioners and the school board race made nonpartisan. Miller advocates creating a long-term plan for the county and closely involving citizens in the process.

Janice Inabinett, 68, retired social worker

Inabinett said her chief goal is to inspire citizens to participate in government. “People are apathetic because they are not asked to participate.” Inabinett says she’s in favor of starting a department of community involvement to create more leaders in Swain.

David Monteith, 63, schoolbus driver, incumbent

Monteith hopes to bring more jobs to Swain County and better promote tourism. Building the North Shore Road would have brought 714 federal jobs to the area, according to Monteith, who was the sole commissioner to vote against the cash settlement. “We need to make sure we do not allow the federal government to continue to take over Swain County.”

Billy Woodard, 63, construction worker and supervisor

Woodard says he will bring much-needed leadership to the county. For Woodard, the biggest issue facing Swain now is the lack of jobs in the area. Woodward’s priority is help citizens establish small businesses in the county.


Republican candidates

John Herrin, 49, project manager for construction company

Herrin’s priorities are to establish an open government, create an active job creation program, and provide full support to the school system. Herrin says the county government would stay within budget if it was profit-driven like the private sector.

Andy Parris, 35, insurance agent

Parris hopes to bring a more transparent government to Swain County. “I want to see if we can do business on top of the table instead of under it.” Parris said commissioners seem to do what they want once they’ve been voted in. “I think it’s time that people had a say-so. That’s what a representative does.”

James F. King, 57, owner of a local meat butcher facility

King would like to keep property taxes as low as possible and curb some county spending. “I feel I can help people of the county, maybe address what people of the county wants instead of what the government thinks they need.”

Gerald (Jerry) Shook, 48, delivery driver

Shook would like to quit following the “old partisanship ways” and make choices for the common people of Swain County. Shook also wants to curb waste on the county’s expense accounts and make cuts to the budget.

Duke faces yet another hurdle on substation

A coalition of Cherokee and Swain County residents have stepped up the pressure on a proposed Duke Energy substation in the vicinity of the sacred Cherokee mothertown, Kituwah.

Last week, a coalition of more than a dozen people filed a formal complaint with the N.C. Utilities Commission asking the regulatory body to halt the project. According to critics, the substation and related transmission lines would mar views of a rural valley between Cherokee and Bryson City and alter the character of the nearby Cherokee ceremonial site.

Natalie Smith, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has been an outspoken critic of the substation and has spearheaded a grassroots effort to move it away from Kituwah. Smith is the only named complainant in the case, but says the coalition includes a mix of county residents, property owners, business owners and tribal members.

“This wasn’t started or formulated for the Eastern Band’s interest,” Smith said of the challenge. “It’s for all the citizens of Swain County and all Cherokee people.”

The coalition’s complaint alleges that Duke Energy began work on the substation without state approval required for projects that exceed a certain capacity and that the project will have significant adverse impacts on residents.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jason Walls released a written statement reiterating the company’s willingness to work in conjunction with tribal leaders to resolve the issue.

Duke is considering alternative sites for the substation suggested by the tribe. It is also looking for ways to reduce the visual impact should it stay in its proposed location, Walls said.

Smith expressed her concern that the tribe has not taken any legal measures to stop the project, even after the tribal council authorized legal action in February.

“I’m curious as to exactly why they haven’t, and I suspect that it is politics,” Smith said. “If it proves to be politics, then I think our leaders need a major recalibration of their priorities, because Kituwah is the heart and soul of our people. It’s beyond any individual or political status.”

The utilities commission has the power to issue an immediate injunction on the project pending resolution of the complaint, but the project has already been halted.

Last month, Swain County commissioners passed a moratorium that put a stop to the project for 90 days, enough time for the county to create an ordinance regulating substations and cell towers.

Candidate profiles

Democrat candidates

Steve Buchanan, 50, Bryson City resident, owner of a construction company

“Most of the thefts relate back to drug use, people stealing to pay for their drug habit, and I feel that it’s at a point now where it has to be stopped in its tracks.”

Buchanan has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience, including six years as an undercover narcotics agent and five years in supervisory positions. Buchanan has also served as a Swain County jailer for about seven months.

Buchanan is running because he believes he has the law enforcement experience, especially in narcotics, to help reduce crime in Swain County.

“I think we’re at a crossroads now in our county...If we don’t elect somebody with experience in law enforcement, then our quality of life in Swain County is going to be affected.”

For more information: www.stevebuchananforsheriff.com.


Chuck Clifton, 60, Bryson City resident, security officer at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

“There is no substitute for education, and experience brings education. When you have experienced leadership, that education can funnel all the way down to the lowest man.”

Clifton retired from more than 27 years of law enforcement experience in 2003. Clifton served as interim chief of police in Florida, and he has supervised as many as 48 officers. Clifton has worked in everything from narcotics to investigations to agricultural crimes to patrolling.

Clifton has also taught at a police academy in Florida and would like to bring more education to deputies. “I would like to see the residents of Swain County be able to say I’m proud of our Sheriff’s Office. They are well-educated, they know how to handle things.”

John Ensley, 42, Bryson City resident, owner of Yellow Rose Realty

“Not only am I going to ask the people to be involved in our community, I’m going to expect it.”

Ensley has 17 years of experience as a business owner in Swain County, has been a Sunday school teacher and coached youth sports.

Ensley is also certified with the Florida Department of Corrections, a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer and president of his B law enforcement training class. He worked as a jailer in Florida and for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.

He would like to bring a businessman’s approach to the Sheriff’s Office, especially when it comes to the $10 million jail that’s now sitting half-empty. “We need some entrepreneurship in there to grow that.”

Ensley’s first priority is to eliminate the drug flow into Swain County and into the school system. His second priority is to rebuild a relationship between law enforcement and the community and restart a community watch program.

For more information: www.ensley4sheriff.com


Steve Ford, 51, Bryson City resident, retired law enforcement officer

“If you’re going to put a badge on them, which in reality is a target for a criminal, you’ve got to pay them.”

Ford has 24 years of experience as a law enforcement officer in Florida, including as a deputy, investigator, sergeant and lieutenant.

Ford said he’s running because he sees a lack of trust between the citizens and the current sheriff’s office.

“I want to make sure that citizens know when they call in a complaint, no matter whether it’s a barking dog or a burglary, we’re going to respond.”

Ford would also like to set up a volunteer community watch team, and has already assembled a team of retired law enforcement officers in Swain County with more than 100 years of combined experience. With their expertise, Ford will pursue grants to work on the drug problem.

“You gotta know where to tap into the assets. Unfortunately, our taxpaying dollars in Swain County is not the right place for all of it.”

For more information: www.fordforsheriff.com


Mitchell Jenkins, 52, Whittier resident, self-employed logger

“I’d like to make Swain County be appreciative and proud of their Sheriff’s Department. I don’t feel like it is right now.”

Jenkins has nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department. Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the public.

“The politeness of your officers when they’re addressing people goes a long way in getting people to confide and trust the department.”

Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the Sheriff’s Office.

“You gotta earn that confidence...or you won’t get no information to operate on.”


Julius Taylor, 37, resident of Big Cove community, Cherokee Police officer

“To make sure occupants are in there, always have the vacancy sign out and not take reservations.”

— On Swain County’s oversized jail.

Taylor has worked for the Cherokee Police Department for almost 16 years and has also worked for the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. His experience includes being a supervisor for 12 years and an administrator for three years. Taylor has had training from the U.S. Interior Department, the FBI, the SBI, and the North Carolina Justice Academy, where he has trained officers.

Taylor’s goal is to work together with surrounding communities to jointly combat the drug problem.

“When you enforce so hard in one jurisdiction, you push it from your yard into somebody else’s...It’s such a deep-seated problem, but all you hear are surface solutions...I’m not the surface solution type of person.”


David Thomas, 56, Bryson City resident, general contractor

“If somebody sued me, I’m not going to sit down and have lunch with them.”

— On the commissioners’ testy relationship with Sheriff Cochran after he filed a lawsuit against them.

Thomas has worked in law enforcement in Swain County under three different sheriffs for almost two decades.

“My priorities are to see if I can’t do something with the drug problem with our kids around here.”

Thomas would also like to work closely with local people as well as those from surrounding counties.

“You gotta get along with everybody...You gotta go out and talk to the people, talk to our other counties, get along with their sheriffs...You can only do what the people let you.”

*Democratic candidate David Franklin was unable to participate in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News for this article.


Republican candidates

Curtis Cochran, 57, Bryson City resident, current sheriff

“We hear criticism every day. When it comes down to the final vote, we’ll see how the voters of Swain County act, if they think I’ve done a good job or a bad job.”

Cochran has worked in heavy construction for 22 years then served as the county facilities manager for 12 years until he was elected sheriff in 2006, narrowly ousting the sitting sheriff at the time. Since being elected, Cochran has attended a sheriff leadership institute, is a member of the North Carolina Jail Administrators’ Association, and has received certificates from a North Carolina Justice Academy identity theft seminar.

“My number one priority is to continue the fight on drugs that we’ve been very aggressive with.” Cochran said his office has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and has made 728 drug arrests since December 2006.

Cochran emphasizes that he’s the only candidate who has experience as Swain County Sheriff.

“I’m local, I know the people, they know me. They know they can come see me.”


Wayne Dover, 36, graphics designer, Bryson City resident

“The sheriff is a political figurehead. If he surrounds himself with good officers, then his job is simple.”

Dover served as a Swain County deputy for four years, and has experience being a detention officer, a patrol officer, a dispatcher and part of courtroom security with the U.S. Marshal Service.

Dover would like to see stiffer penalties for drugs, including more jail time rather than probation periods. “If they’re found guilty of a drug offense, then we need to take their money, their cars, their homes — give them a reason to leave. If you take enough of their toys, enough of their money, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Dover says he’d also like to set up an explorer program for young adults to ride with officers and learn about a career in law enforcement.

Swain sheriff under fire from deep bench of challengers

There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.

Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.

Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.

Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.

Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.

All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.



Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.

Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.

Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.

Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.

John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.

Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”

Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.

David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.

Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”

Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.

Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.

Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.

Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.

Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.

“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”

Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.



No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.

During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.

Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.

John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”

To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.

David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”

Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.

Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.

Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.

Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.

Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”

Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”



Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.

Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.

Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.

John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”

Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.

David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”

Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.

Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”

Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.

Swain passes moratorium on utility projects

The setting may have been humble –– a nondescript meeting room in a county administration building –– but the Swain County commissioners’ vote to pass a moratorium on communications and utility projects may prove monumental. The vote could force utility giant Duke Energy to the negotiating table, and it was a bona fide act of solidarity with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the part of the county.

Last week, four Swain County commissioners –– Genevieve Lindsay, Steve Moon, Phil Carson, and David Monteith –– voted unanimously to pass a 90-day moratorium on all telecommunications and utility projects that require a county building permit.

The moratorium could prevent Duke Energy from moving forward with a controversial electrical substation project near the sacred Cherokee site Kituwah.

After the vote, a small but energetic crowd of Swain County residents –– some enrolled EBCI members –– applauded loudly.

“We don’t often get applauded,” said a smiling Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay, who chaired the meeting in the absence of County Chairman Glenn Jones.

Judging by the crowd, Lindsay should not have been surprised by the applause.

Nate Darnell, whose family operates Darnell Farms, an agri-tourism business in the same valley as the Kituwah mothertown site, expressed his support for the moratorium.

“I want people to come to our farm and say, ‘Wow, this place is unscathed by development,’” Darnell said. “We have to take a stand and say some things are more valuable than power.”

Darnell’s family has leased the farmstead since 1984 and is the most recognizable business in the valley below the proposed Duke Energy substation project at Hyatt Creek, between Ela and Bryson City.

“I’m not a conservationist. I’m a preservationist,” Darnell said. “I don’t want the land locked up, I want it used wisely.”

Natalie Smith, a Swain resident and Cherokee business owner who has led a citizens’ group that opposes the substation project, also spoke in support of the moratorium.

“I am so relieved to see Swain County take the reins. It is overdue. This could be an historical event,” Smith said. “I feel as if Swain County has taken many punches over the decades from big conglomerates and continues to suffer from them. Finally, we are standing up for ourselves and acknowledging our assets.”

Smith’s citizen action group has announced its intent to bring suit against Duke over the project.

“The coalition is organizing and we are going legal, but we can’t discuss any details until the case is in court,” Smith said.

But it was the Swain County commissioners themselves who had the final say on the moratorium, which will be in effect for 90 days. During that time the county will develop an ordinance regulating the construction of telecommunications and utility facilities. New ordinances can’t be adopted until a public hearing is held, meaning Swain citizens will get the opportunity to address the proposal before it becomes law.

“You can’t stop progress, and we don’t want to,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But it would be a shame if they were allowed to continue to desecrate that site. Let’s see if the project can be located in a place that would be less visible and less detrimental.”

Moon said he felt the need to stand up for the Cherokee residents of Swain County, in part, because his wife Faye is an enrolled EBCI member who feels strongly about the issue.

“They’re our friends, our relatives and our neighbors,” Moon said.

Commissioner Phil Carson said his vote was prompted by his experience at a meeting last month between Duke Energy’ and the EBCI to which the Swain commissioners were invited.

“I felt like it was a real eye-opener,” Carson said. “We were really just observers and weren’t considered as part of the solution to the problem. Working together for all our people is the common goal.”

While it’s not entirely clear whether the moratorium will stop Duke’s progress on the 300-by-300-foot substation on a hill overlooking the Kituwah site, Fred Alexander, Duke’s regional director, was clearly concerned by the vote.

“Quite frankly what Duke is trying to do is find an alternative that will meet the needs of our customers in Swain and Jackson counties that gets us off of that mountain,” Alexander said.

Renissa Walker, another enrolled member of the EBCI who resides in Swain County, confronted Alexander after the meeting, asking him to consider the issue from the perspective of a tribal member.

“Stand on top of the mound under a full moon and do a 360-degree turn making a full circle, and you’ll see that Kituwah is protected by all of those mountains and you’ll see the genius of why our ancestors put it there,” Walker said.

The EBCI Tribal Council passed a resolution last month clearing the way for the tribe to take legal action against Duke. So far, the tribe has not filed any suits in court or with the state utilities commission, preferring instead to hold ongoing negotiations focused on locating alternative site locations and considering options for mitigating the visual impact of the project.

The Swain moratorium poses the first legal hurdle to the project, but much depends on what kind of ordinance the county produces during the moratorium period. Duke needs a county building permit for the project and does not have one.

Alexander, while communicating Duke’s desire to resolve the conflict with the tribe and the county, was careful to reiterate the company’s stance so far on the issue.

“On the other hand, we’re not in a position to say, ‘No, we can’t be where we are today,’ because we have a responsibility to serve our customers,” Alexander said.

Both Swain County and the EBCI have offered alternative locations, and Alexander said Duke would continue to evaluate its options before making a decision on whether to relocate its substation.

No relief for crowded schools

Despite using every nook and cranny available, Swain County schools are still struggling to track down classroom space for its exploding student population.

The number of students at Swain County High School has shot up so dramatically that the school has outgrown its auditorium and must now hold two assemblies instead of one on every occasion.

“That’s a time issue, and sometimes, a money issue,” said Regina Mathis, principal of Swain County High, which often has to pay speakers double the price.

In the 2002-2003 school year, 1,679 students attended the county’s schools. By 2008-2009, that number that had grown to 1,840.

Swain County High School shows the biggest rise in students, with an increase of 110 students in the last six years.

The high school has tried to accommodate that growth by asking four teachers to share classroom space. It has converted an auto mechanics classroom into a regular classroom, even using the hallway that leads up to the room as lab space, and transformed an equipment storage room next to the gymnasium into a small classroom.

What used to be a student lounge with couches is now office space for support staff. Where chorus students formerly practiced singing, history classes have taken their place.

One math teacher and his students must trek out to a doublewide from the school each day, cutting time spent in class.

“That’s a little inconvenient for kids if it’s raining,” said Mathis.

And the problem is not limited to just the high school. Elementary schools in Swain have even held art and music classes on stages in the past.

Running out of time

The problem is not new. A committee was formed to assess building needs in January 2007, and several solutions have been discussed. But with little funding to implement the solutions, Swain schools have been left struggling.

In 2009, Swain County qualified for a federal school bond program that gives lenders a tax break for funding school construction. But the county has been unable to lock down any lenders so far, County Manager Kevin King said.

According to the committee’s plans, Swain West Elementary will ideally be first to get new classrooms. Next in line would be Swain East Elementary.

The committee’s plans also call for a new $25 to $30 million high school to be built on a 50-acre tract the county purchased a few years ago for that purpose near the current high school site.

Meanwhile, the middle school would be cut down to only seventh and eighth grades and move into the old high school. The old middle school could then become a third elementary school for the county.

Mathis said the committee has looked at installing $1 million or $2 million additions, but such small expansions would only be a stopgap measure.

“Why put that in if we’re going to have $25 million for a new high school?” asked Mathis. “Sure, I’d love to have more classrooms, but in the long run, it doesn’t make sense.”

Sam Pattillo, facilities director for Swain County’s schools, said this is only a preliminary plan, however, not something that’s been set in stone.

“It’s a start for discussion,” said Pattillo.

King pointed out that building the high school alone might result in a whopping 15 cent tax increase to cover $1.9 million each year in bond payments.

Rather than employ a piecemeal approach right now, King recommends tackling the entire problem in 2018, when the school system’s current debt of about $900,000 will be mostly paid off.

“It’s not attainable right now,” said King. “If it’s not attainable, then there’s really no need to pursue it.”

But Mathis said eight years might be a long time to wait.

“Looking over the last eight years, we’ve grown 27 percent,” said Mathis. “What if within the next eight years, we grow 27 more?”

The county will soon begin reaping dividends from the North Shore Road cash settlement. At a minimum, the county will receive around $800,000 a year in interest, and it could grow much larger if the federal government follows through on paying the full settlement it has promised.

The interest off the cash settlement fund could potentially be set aside for school construction.

But school board member Jerry McKinney said he’s concerned about tying up the North Shore money in a reoccurring expense like bond payments.

“I’d rather see other ways of funding construction needs,” said McKinney. “But education should get the lion’s share [of the settlement], I believe.”

Other options for getting the new high school built before 2018 include holding a bond referendum to ask the people whether they’d support a tax increase to build the high school. It’s doubtful that such a major tax increase would pass in Swain or anywhere else, however.

McKinney, who is running for county commissioner, said having such a small tax base in Swain always poses a challenge for school funding.

But McKinney understands space needs in Swain County schools are a pressing issue and new that facilities are necessary.

McKinney pointed out that Swain County still had the same number of gymnasiums it had when he was a boy.

“The old one at the middle school is 70 plus years old,” said McKinney. “We keep renovating, we keep adding to it, trying to keep it up. Because of that there is a need in this community.”

Swain County moratorium could stop Duke substation

Swain County has entered the fight over Duke Energy’s proposed electrical substation that would mar views in a rural farming valley near a highly sacred Cherokee site.

Swain commissioners are considering a moratorium that would halt any electrical and telecommunications substations that require either a county building permit or soil and erosion permit. The county has scheduled a public hearing on the moratorium for Tuesday, March 9, at 1 p.m. at the county administration building.

According to County Manager Kevin King, the moratorium is intended to give the county time to develop an ordinance regulating substations.

County Chairman Glenn Jones said the moratorium was not aimed at the Duke Energy substation project directly, but it was an outgrowth of talks between the commissioners, Duke leadership and Cherokee tribal leaders over the issue.

“We’re not going to pass anything that’s just going to be detrimental, but we wanted to pass something so people can’t start scratching around without talking to us,” Jones said.

Site preparation for the substation pad began last November on a mountainside tract in the Ela community between Bryson City and Cherokee. Duke never received any county permits for the work and did not file an application with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Swain County commissioners learned of the extent of the substation and line upgrade projects only after members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians came to a board meeting to complain. Cherokee is upset that the substation and associated transmission lines will impact the character of Kituwah, which historically served as the spiritual and political center of the Cherokee.

Jones said the commissioners plan to pass the moratorium at the special public hearing next week and have an ordinance in place within 60 days.

“Within 60 days, we’ll have some kind of ordinance in place so we can move forward,” Jones said.

King said county commissioners came away from the meeting last month in Cherokee realizing they needed their own regulations. At that meeting, Duke Energy Carolinas President Brett Carter made it clear the reason his company had consulted with Jackson County over the substation and transmission line project was that their ordinances required it.

“He made it clear that if you have a local ordinance, you’d have a seat at the table, and if you don’t have an ordinance, you don’t have a seat at the table,” King said.

Swain Commissioner David Monteith said the moratorium was a way to bring Duke to the table now and in the future.

“I think the moratorium is a way to get them to sit down and talk with us, not only now but even more so in the future,” Monteith said. “I feel that Duke owes the people of Swain County and Western North Carolina more respect than what they’ve given us ... which is nothing.”


Immediate remedy or long-term goal?

It’s not clear whether Duke’s current substation project will be directly affected by the moratorium or the ordinance the county puts in place.

King said Duke’s regional manager Fred Alexander was concerned enough to call and ask him if the moratorium would affect the substation.

“He was basically asking whether this would impeded the project, and I said he’d probably need to consult their attorneys on that,” King said.

Duke spokesman Jason Walls said it was too early to tell how the moratorium would affect the project, but the company’s attorneys would review the documents as they were made available.

“We’re engaged with the county to better understand what the moratorium would entail and until we see the actual document, we won’t know how it might affect the company’s plans,” Walls said.

David Owens –– a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government who specializes in land-use law –– believes Duke would have to make the case that they had a vested right in the project to claim exemption from the moratorium. Under vested rights claims, developers who are already underway with a project can be exempt from regulations that come along later.

“They would have to show that they’d sunk some cost in this particular location and those costs would be lost if the structure were moved to a different site,” Owens said.

Owens said the announcement of a public hearing on a moratorium by Swain commissioners sets the stage for whatever legal arguments are to come.

“Once a county sends a notice of a moratorium, that freezes the status quo,” Owens said. “The question is what is Duke’s position at that point.”

In 2006, state legislators tightened the laws governing moratoria imposed by local governments. The statute mandates that counties state the problems that necessitate a moratorium, list the development projects that could be affected, name a date for the end of the moratorium, and develop a list of actions designed to remedy the problem.


Us and them

Duke is currently in negotiations with the Eastern Band over whether to mitigate the visual impact of the substation or move the project altogether. Swain County’s actions have added pressure to the energy giant.

King said the fact that many tribal members are Swain County residents motivated the commissioners to act.

“Every tribal member that lives in Swain County votes in our election, so as far as the board is concerned there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s all ‘us,’” King said.

Both the county and the tribe have offered Duke alternative sites for the substation. King said he offered a site in the county’s industrial park.

“That’s an area that’s visually polluted already,” King said. “We’re trying to deliver alternatives. The tribe is trying to deliver alternatives, and hopefully we can all get this resolved.”

Swain County officials have stressed, as has the tribe, that they prefer an amicable resolution to the issue rather than a legal battle.

“If coming out of this we could get an open dialogue with Duke, this can be a positive thing for Swain County in the future,” Monteith said.

Swain starts to budge on Deal’s Gap debate

Despite Graham County pledging to end all emergency services to Deal’s Gap starting Jan. 1, its EMS director has already sent rescue squads to respond to tractor trailer wrecks in the Swain territory since the year began.

Graham’s emergency services director Larry Hembree says he’ll continue to send ambulances to Deal’s Gap, but only if Swain County asks for help.

“If there’s an ambulance call, and they request our assistance, we will go,” said Hembree.

Until this year, Graham habitually responded to wrecks in Swain’s Deal’s Gap — gateway to the world-famous Dragon, a mythic road in Tennessee that sports 318 curves in 11 miles. A curvy stretch of N.C. 28 known as Hellbender also winds through Deals Gap. Both attract hordes of motorcycles and sports cars.

Starting this year, Graham County commissioners officially handed over emergency services for the area to Swain after growing exasperated with the increasingly expensive service as the number of wrecks rose there. Graham asked Swain for a financial contribution to continue emergency coverage, but Swain refused.

Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said 911 calls have been transferred to Swain County, and that Graham should not respond without an agreement in writing — in contrast to Hembree’s stance that they would continue to pitch in if needed.

“Without a mutual aid agreement in place, it puts our county at a risk of liability,” said Odom. “You’re leaving your home jurisdiction, going into another jurisdiction...you’re putting your county at risk because you’re doing something at risk.”

While calls have been few and far between for now, the true test of Swain’s ability to respond will come when the weather warms up and droves of motorcycles and sports cars crowd up the dangerously curvy roads there.

“Around the first of April is when it’s going to heat up,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “That’s not too far off. I guess we’ll see how good a job they do at that point.”

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, said the county is still exploring its options, including assigning a first responder to Deal’s Gap.

But for Swain, a new mutual aid agreement with Graham is still not off the table.

“If they’ve incurred costs down there, we want to ensure that they break even,” said King. “We would be more than happy to entertain a mutual agreement that we would pick up the difference.”

Previously, Graham responded to wrecks in Deal’s Gap in exchange for Swain transporting Graham residents from the hospital in Bryson City to other destinations and responding to mountain bike accidents in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area. But Graham claimed the arrangement was far from equal.

Since the debate began, Graham has suggested everything from annexing the territory to receiving $100,000 annually from Swain for its services.

The first option was out of the question for Swain, and the $100,000 seemed exorbitant. Graham lowered its sights to $80,000 per year, but that was still higher than Swain desired.

King said Swain does not want to shell out the $50,000 annual payment that Graham has requested most recently.

Swain wants to make sure it’s not handing over more than necessary since Graham will recoup some of the costs from the patients it transports.

Nevertheless, Swain Commissioner David Monteith said he’s optimistic about sitting down with Graham commissioners soon to work out a deal.

“I think we’ve found some ground everybody can work for,” said Monteith, though he would not elaborate. “I think what’s going to take place is going to be good.”


What’s Swain doing out there?

Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County that’s surrounded by Graham County. Deal’s Gap bordered the rest of Swain County in the past but became isolated after Lake Fontana was created.

The satellite territory is so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Bryson City. Ambulances from neighboring Graham County can arrive on scene a full 20 minutes faster.

Making sure Swain County gets its due

The cash settlement now signed and sealed for Swain County in lieu of building the North Shore Road is a good thing, right?

Well, it’s a good thing only if the entire $52 million comes through, and that’s something that this newspaper, the rest of the media in this region, and the leaders who have put their names on this document need to make sure happens.

I’m in the camp of those who have been saying for years that the settlement was among the best of the available options. A real road along the north shore of Fontana Lake just doesn’t make sense, not today. When that promise was made, the idea of protecting wilderness areas was just taking root. The recent Ken Burns documentary about the national parks explained in detail how the national park movement started, fermented, then took off.

Now, six decades later, this area on the lake’s shore is touted by many as the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. There is no way anyone besides the relatives of those forcibly moved from the land could want this road built.

For what it’s worth, I personally favored another, more expensive option. I think the park service should have extended the road by a mile or so and then built a visitor center at its terminus explaining the history of the former logging and mining villages in the area, the promises made to those who left, and how the controversy ended. This, along with $52 million for Swain County, would have been a better outcome.

But this is settlement is what we have, and there is more than a little irony in the new agreement. Once again Swain County residents are given a promise — $52 million — and are asked to trust in the federal government that it will be fulfilled. I’m more than just a little worried, especially given the nation’s budget woes, the capriciousness of political leaders everywhere, and the strong current of partisan warfare that now engulfs Washington. What Rep. Heath Shuler and President Obama’s minions promise may mean nothing to the next set of elected officials who take office.

There is another “catch” in this agreement that doesn’t involve the federal government. The state is going to hold the money in a trust account so the principal can’t be touched, and Swain will get the interest. Again, another government entity that was part of the original agreement is going to be in line ahead of Swain to actually control the money. When the budget gets tight, those dollars are going to look more like filet mignon than a sacred cow. North Carolina, indeed, has a recent history of withholding money from counties and towns that, by its own statutes, didn’t belong to the state.

Right now, Swain is to get $12.8 million. The rest is to come in over the next 10 years, at the rate of about $4 million a year.

I’m confident that Swain County is going to get this money, but I’m also confident that there will be some greedy hands trying to grab some of it in the coming decade. It never hurts to prepare for battle.


There is no more deserving Main Street Champion than former Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy, who was honored with this award during the recent Main Street North Carolina banquet.

Foy, who served as mayor of Waynesville until 2008, was for decades the face of a town that underwent a dramatic revival under his leadership. Waynesville’s downtown is often held up as a model, and Foy is one of those responsible for its success.

For years, he supported efforts to revitalize the downtown area and never missed an important event that would bring publicity or development. Foy, who still lives a little more than a block from Main Street, was an elected official for 26 years and mayor for 16.

A well-deserved award if ever there was one.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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