They’re finally getting somewhere with the Road to Nowhere. Sixty-five years after hundreds of Swain County families were moved to make way for Fontana dam and lake, officials are negotiating a settlement to compensate the county for the federal government’s broken promise to build a road to ancestral lands and 32 isolated family cemeteries.
Federal authorities promised the highway in 1943. Six miles of the 37-mile North Shore Road were completed in 1972 before environmental laws halted work. Hence, the Road to Nowhere. Supporters say finishing it would open tens of thousands of acres to development. That’s what opponents fear, arguing that the truncated road is one of Swain County’s big tourist attractions because it runs through scenic, pristine wilderness.
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler announced in December a deal in which the federal government would pay the county rather than build the road, but the Asheville Democrat didn’t say how much and when. “We’re moving forward,” county commissioners chairman Glenn Jones says. “They’ve got $6 million sitting in the Interior Department budget that they’re ready to release to Swain County when we get a final contract negotiated.”
That contract would provide a payment schedule. Jones says Congress is unlikely to pay the full amount — Swain hopes to get more than the $52 million a recent study recommended — in a lump sum. “The federal government is just not going to cough up that much at one time,” Jones says.
The county wants, he adds, to set up a trust. “We’ll deposit the principal amount, which would never be touched. The county can live with the interest on that, which we figure would be about $2.3 million a year.” That’s big money in Swain, where the budget this year is only $10.2 million. The county can tax only about 52,000 of its nearly 330,000 acres because the Tennessee Valley Authority, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians own the rest.