BRYSON CITY, NC (AP) A $52 million federal payment to Swain County and no more construction on the controversial “Road to Nowhere” was the preferred solution to the long-running road debate of most speakers at a public hearing Feb. 2.
The hearing was the first in a series that the National Park Service is holding following last month’s release of a draft environmental impact statement on a proposal to complete the road from Bryson City to Fontana Dam.
Environmentalists and others oppose finishing the road, which now dead-ends about 7 miles from Bryson City, just inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They say it would endanger one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the eastern United States.
“The Smoky Mountains are a rare jewel. ... Why not have a place where you can still see the stars?” said James Dawson of Atlanta, a Swain County landowner. “There is a value to keeping things primitive.”
Nearly 200 people attended the hearing, with about 50 registering to speak and dozens filling out comment sheets.
Most speakers — who included hikers, business people, environmentalists and local officials — said they support of a cash settlement, an idea that has been endorsed by Swain County commissioners and Gov. Mike Easley.
A 1943 agreement between North Carolina and the federal government promised construction of a road on the north shore of Fontana Lake to replace a state highway flooded by the construction of Fontana Dam, provided Congress provided funding. Construction was halted in 1972 because of high costs and environmental concerns.
Supporters of completing the road argue it would give residents forced out by construction of the dam access to family cemeteries and home places. The National Park Service now pays to transport those people across Fontana Lake by boat for annual cemetery decoration days.
“I’d love for that road to be built,” said David Nichols of Robbinsville. “I have so many people who are buried on the north shore.”
Robert Jones of Robbinsville said a road would honor his mother and grandfather, whose homes were destroyed when the dam was built. “My mother and grandfather never got to go back,” he said.
The park service’s environmental impact statement said extending the road to the dam would cost at least $589.7 million for an asphalt road, plus $14.3 million in operations and maintenance costs related to construction.
In the draft statement, the park service named the cash settlement as the “environmentally preferred alternative,” but did not name an overall preferred alternative.
The debate had been dormant for years when U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., got $16 million in federal money to resume construction in 2000. That prompted the park service to assess the environmental impact.
Environmentalists and others, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, favor a settlement.
“The cash settlement is just the right thing to do,” said Glen Jones, chairman of Swain County’s board of commissioners. He spoke at a Southern Environmental Law Center news conference held before the start of the public hearing. “It would help each and every individual in Swain County.”
The commissioner said the state would invest the $52 million; a two-thirds vote of the county’s registered voters would be needed to direct dividends from that investment to special projects, including tax relief, new schools, more police officers or additional recreational opportunities.
Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the park service will name a preferred alternative in its final environmental impact statement, expected this fall.
More public hearings are scheduled for Asheville and Robbinsville and in the Tennessee cities of Knoxville and Gatlinburg.
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