Jackson County ends pending suits on Dillsboro Dam dispute

A long lasting legal battle was put to a close when county officials voted to settle all pending lawsuits with Duke Energy on June 21.

The vote during a regular meeting of the Jackson County Commissioners resulted in 4-1, as Commissioner Joe Cowan casted the one “no” vote.

Duke Energy was relieved to call it quits.

“We were very pleased that we’ve been able to settle the dispute,” said Duke Energy spokesperson, Jason Walls.

County officials fought an almost six-year battle to prevent Duke from removing the Dillboro Dam, but federal and state officials consistently rejected county arguments and ruled in Duke’s favor. Jackson County’s final legal strategy was to adopt a plan for a park that included the dam and reservoir and then attempt to condemn the dam, reservoir, powerhouse and surrounding property in order to build that park.

According to Commissioner Cowan, Duke wasn’t offering the county enough money for use of its waterways for power generation and hoped that officials would “leave the door open” to an appeal.

As of June 1, the county had spent a total of $550,269.97 in legal fees in its fight against Duke Energy over the Dillsboro Dam.

That money that was spent included $10,000 to the Appraisal Consultation Group, $1,190.50 to BSCI, Inc., $2,145.00 to Burns Land Surveying, $72,487.71 to Fish and Wildlife, $13,346.04 to county attorney Paul Holt, $36,977.97 to Bryson City lawyer Gary Miller, $204,545.84 to Virginia-based energy attorney Paul Nolan, $114 to Ruth Paulson, $11,247.20 to Trident, $194,361.47 to Vendeventer Black LLP, and $3,854.24 to Van Winkle, Buck, Wall and Starnes.

After both a federal District Court judge and a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals panel indicated that the Federal Power Act, which gives complete authority over hydroelectric projects to the FERC, takes precedence, county officials in late January agreed to end the legal wrangling.

Duke destroyed the Dillsboro powerhouse in that same month and began taking apart the dam on Feb. 3. The power company is now in the process of riverbank restoration.

“We’re ready to go ahead and move on with the process of getting new licenses,” said Walls.

Duke agreed to remove the concrete dam, which was 83 years old, 12 feet high, and 216 feet wide built by early industrialist C.J. Harris as improvement for the impact of its much larger upstream power plants. Federal law requires operators of private hydropower dams to address impacts to fish and wildlife, and it was determined that dam removal would assist the recovery of a pair of endangered species – the Appalachian elktoe mussel and the sicklefin redhorse fish.

“It’s nice to have a free flowing river there now and to see people fishing,” said Walls.