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Swain: Screwed, Blued and Tattooed…Again

leah kirk

Swain County has yet to be paid about $39 million it is owed by the federal government. The government agreed in 2010 to pay the county $52 million for the loss of a road through the north shore area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but most of the debt is still outstanding. A judge recently ruled that it is too soon for Swain County to sue the federal government over money yet to be paid in lieu of a road once planned through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims dismissed Swain's lawsuit, but the county has asked for reconsideration of the decision, saying a recent ruling by a higher court underlines the importance of the fact that the National Park Service has not asked Congress for any of the money since 2012. An agreement calling for Swain to get $52 million instead of a road along the north shore of Fontana Lake gives the government until the end of 2020 to pay up.

The budget proposal the administration sent to Congress recently also contains no mention of money to compensate Swain for the road that would have run along the north shore of Fontana Lake. That dashed hopes by some that a change of administration, and the fact that the president and Swain County's representatives in the U.S. House and Senate are now all of the same political party, might dislodge some or all of the $39.2 million Swain is yet to be paid from a 2010 agreement between the county and the federal government.

Construction of Fontana Lake during World War II flooded parts of N.C. 288, a road Swain County had built in the 1920s between Bryson City and Tennessee, and left some other sections unconnected to any other road and thus useless in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1943, the federal government agreed to build a replacement road when Congress appropriated the money. The Department of the Interior reneged on the agreement and stopped work in the 1970 leaving Swain County with a great unfulfilled promise.

"We're obviously disappointed in the court's decision," said Peter Dungan, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing the county. "The court is saying we have to wait until 2020 to exercise any rights. We don't believe that's the case."

Swain argues that the federal government is not acting in good faith because it has not asked Congress to appropriate any money to meet its obligation. If the county's legal strategy works -- and it is far from certain it will -- it would mean a dispute over payments to a company that trucked food and other supplies to American troops in the Middle East would deliver millions to Swain County coffers.