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N.C. to get $52m instead of ‘road to nowhere’

Associated Press / February 3, 2010

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RALEIGH, N.C. - The federal government has agreed to pay a $52 million settlement so it will not have to complete the “road-to-nowhere’’ through North Carolina’s mountain wilderness, officials said yesterday, ending a dispute that began during World War II.

The payments destined for Swain County will be a boon for the area: The settlement is four times the county’s annual budget, and officials plan to draw from only the annual interest payments, with the remainder staying in a state account that can be used only if voters agree to access it.

Representative Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, said the agreement will nullify a 1943 pact that required the federal government to build the 30-mile roadway into an undeveloped area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee line. The government had promised to replace a highway that was flooded to build a dam.

Shuler said, however, that it has long been evident that the existing 7-mile road would never be finished. The road comes to a dead end just inside the national park west of Bryson City.

“This settlement will bring much-needed resources to Swain County for decades to come,’’ Shuler said.

David Monteith, 63, an area county commissioner who had family members displaced by the dam project, said he opposes the settlement. He said 6,000 people left because their homes and land would be flooded by the dam, which officials had said would help produce electricity that could increase the production of aluminum for World War II planes and bombs.

“We were promised a road. It’s what we deserve,’’ Monteith said.

Supporters had previously argued that a road would give those forced out by the flooding access to family cemeteries, although officials have balked at an estimated $600 million price tag for completion.

The National Park Service plans to continue providing annual transportation to the cemeteries, Shuler said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be in North Carolina on Saturday to sign the settlement agreement - a deal celebrated by environmental groups.

“The wildest region of the park will stay wild, and future generations will be able to experience its isolation and grandeur,’’ said Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association.