North Shore debt paid to Swain County
Swain County leadership was presented with a check for $35.2 million, the remaining North Shore settlement funds, in a private ceremony Saturday, June 30 held at the Swain County Heritage Museum and Visitor’s Center followed by a trip to the tunnel.
The payment goes into a settlement trust fund in Raleigh and the county can draw on the interest.
The payment was the final remaining fund balance of a $52 million payment agreement from 2010 between the county, Department of Interior and Tennessee Valley Authority over a road that was never completed called North Shore Road that would have replaced NC 288.
The road was supposed to be constructed along the north shore of Fontana Lake as payment for when the county conveyed land to the National Park Service for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1943.
Saturday’s ceremony was a cheerful one, as speakers were met with applause from local leaders and Swain County residents who worked tirelessly to see the issue resolved over the years.
Swain County Commission Chairman opened the ceremony to a crowd of about 50 people. When he was first elected in 2006, the issue of whether to take the settlement money or continue fighting for a road to be constructed was a contentious one, he said.
“I personally was a road proponent, but after learning the fact of they will never build the road,” Carson said. “I decided we need to do what’s best for our county; I made the decision to go the other way.”
“It’s been a long, hard, arduous road to get to where we’re at today,” said NC Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-119). “I thank God for this opportunity that’s been bestowed upon us in Swain County and the leadership of Thom Tillis, Senator Zinke, Mike Meadows and President Trump, otherwise this would not have become a reality.”
David Monteith, a commissioner and a staunch advocate of Swain County who fought for the road was mentioned on Saturday as well. Monteith died in 2017.
Congressman Mark Meadows (R-11) joined forces with former Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler and testified before Congress on the need for the federal government to give Swain County its due. Both were at the ceremony Saturday.
“It is a great day for Swain County, and it is a long time coming,” Meadows said. “It’s hard for people in Western North Carolina to believe this would ever get done. For many of us in Western North Carolina, we think people forget us out here.”
He commended Zinke, who was quoted to say, ‘there’s a new sheriff in town,” after he took office in 2017.
Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) also thanked Zinke, as well as Meadows, the county commissioners and his staff. Tillis’ staff took up the issue of advocating on behalf of Swain County.
“We’ve been on this for the last 4 years, and it’s great to see this come together,” Tillis said.
Then, it was Zinke’s turn to speak.
“On behalf of President (Donald) Trump (R), this is a great day, and for me it’s a promise made and a promise kept,” Zinke said. “I’m from a town similar to this, White Fish, Montana…there’s a lot of anger out there at the government when we say something and don’t follow through. Ultimately, the government works for us, it’s our government.
“Some of you have been at this for 50 years, what will you do tomorrow?” he said.
As for Zinke and Tillis, they both had plans of hiking and enjoying the mountains.
Zinke signed the huge cardboard check at the presentation.
“I truly want to say thank you to our federal government, President Trump and all your Congress people, Tillis, (Senator Richard) Burr (R), Mark Meadows, for diligently working on this issue for Swain and you sir, Mr. Zinke, you are a man of your word,” Carson said. “This money is going to help future generations. I have three small granddaughters this money should help them if they live here in Swain County.”
Following the ceremony, everyone traveled up the so-called Road to Nowhere for a photo in front of the tunnel. In directing everyone to join for the trip up to the tunnel, Carson called the road by its proper name, Lakeview Drive.
“We’re going to make it go somewhere,” Carson said.
Swain County commissioners took the opportunity of Saturday’s event, which was also attended by Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash, to advocate for a future campground to be built at the end of the road.
The county can draw on the principal of the funds, which are kept in a state account in Raleigh. As Carson alluded to Saturday, as per the agreement, the county could only spend the principal if 75 percent of registered voters approved.
Many in Swain County were concerned the county would never see the remaining money owed, given the huge delay in payments since the 2010 agreement when the county received $12.8 million.
Since the 2010 agreement, county commissioners have traveled to Washington D.C. several times on behalf of the county to advocate the funds be released.
Swain County commissioners went as far as filing a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Claims Court in 2016 over the remaining funds, with the deadline for the 2010 agreement being 2020. A federal claims court judge dismissed the county’s suit following DPI’s motion to dismiss over a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The courts found the county could not file until the 2020 deadline had passed.
It wasn’t until 2017 with a change in the leadership in Washington D.C. that hope seemed to prevail. In September 2017, Secretary Zinke signed a check for $4 million to the county in a presentation held in Washington D.C.
Saturday’s presentation brought a close to the decades-long fight over the road. Zinke and others from Washington called it “A promise fulfilled.”