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Fight not over for Fontana houseboats

fr houseboatsHouseboat owners on Fontana Lake aren’t quite ready to give up their investments without a fight even after the Tennessee Valley Authority made the decision last month to ban all floating houses in 30 years.

Even though they have another 30 years to enjoy their lake property investments, houseboat owners say they are already feeling the impact of TVA’s decision. Perri Morrison owns a 1960’s era houseboat on Fontana that has a TVA permit but is having a difficult time selling it. Admittedly the house is in rough shape and in need of repairs, but Morrison said she was only asking $4,500 for it. 

“I had it sold to a fellow and his partner, a definite sale, until he spoke with the TVA,” she said. “What they told him I have no idea, but I do know whatever it was, they backed out of an almost-done deal. I feel that the TVA is continuing a campaign against houseboat owners in any way they can in this 30-year window until the final sunset.”

Houseboat owners on Fontana are still upset over the ruling, but they haven’t given up. Houseboat owner Laura Sneed, who helped start an online petition against the sunset policy, is still keeping the Facebook group “Fontana Families For Floating Houses” active and asking other owners to keep up with how much money they spend in Swain and Graham counties when they’re visiting. By keeping receipts, they’ll be able to show TVA the true impact they have on the local community. 

“We’ve spent almost $1,000 in Swain County alone during the four weekends we’ve been to the floating home,” Sneed said on Monday. “This is since the May 5 meeting only, so we’ve actually spent more this season.”

Some houseboat owners have suggested collectively finding legal representation to fight TVA, but Sneed and many others are hoping it won’t come to that. They are willing to work with TVA to come up with a solution in the coming years.   

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U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, is also taking up the cause and is trying to get the TVA to reconsider its decision or to exclude Fontana. Following a May 5 decision by the TVA board to give houseboat owners on all its reservoirs 30 years to remove them, Meadows sent TVA a letter expressing his disapproval. 

He accused the TVA of unlawfully expanding its authority under the TVA Act. While current law does allow the TVA to approve or deny plans for the construction, operation and maintenance of a floating house, Meadows said TVA didn’t have the power to revoke any kind of permit after it has been granted, which applies to many of the houseboats on Fontana. 

“The power to authorize regulatory authority rests with Congress alone. Furthermore, Congress gave TVA only one mechanism for suspending the Board’s prior approval of a floating house: ‘deviation’ from the plans originally ‘submitted to … the Board,’” Meadows wrote in his letter. “By nullifying hundreds of Board-sanctioned houseboat permits, TVA ran afoul of not only Congress’s constitutional prerogatives, but also the rights of the law-abiding homeowners on Fontana Lake.”

TVA’s decision to get rid of all floating houses — more than 1,800 — rested on three major concerns: public safety, water quality concerns and wanting to keep private ownership off of its public waters. TVA officials said floating houses caused pollution in the lakes though staff showed no concrete evidence of such contamination in its environmental report. 

Swain and Graham counties have specifically passed ordinances to keep Fontana Lake clean and hold houseboat owners accountable for properly disposing of their sewage. The Fontana Lake Users Association formed about 15 years ago and lobbied county commissioners to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste.  

The two counties secured more than $700,000 in grants to get a fleet of pump boats up and running to service the houseboats. Houseboats now collect their own sewage in tanks and have it pumped out and hauled ashore periodically by marina owners.

Meadows said TVA is ignoring the steps Graham and Swain counties have taken in the past to protect public health and water quality. The counties and private houseboat owners have done their own water testing on Fontana, and the results have shown vast improvement since the ordinance was passed. 

“Both Swain and Graham County have devoted substantial resources safeguarding public health and minimizing the environmental impact of floating houses,” Meadows wrote. “It would be very unwise to prefer the Board’s top-down approach to removing floating homes over the carefully-crafted policies of Swain and Graham counties — policies in which affected residents had a voice and a stake.”

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said Meadows was pushing for the TVA to hold a local meeting near Fontana to allow stakeholders to have a voice in the process. When the TVA board took a vote on the houseboat issue in May, the meeting was held six hours away in Tennessee, which kept many stakeholders from voicing their concerns in person. 

Meadows said he was also concerned about the negative impact to Swain and Graham counties without the economic boost from houseboat property tax and sales tax revenues. Many houseboat owners travel hours away to come to Fontana and spend money at local restaurants, gas stations, marinas and other tourism-related businesses. Losing the houseboats means Swain and Graham will lose a significant tourism draw. 

Meadows concluded his letter by saying that the people of Western North Carolina would be better served if TVA would focus on its core mission of providing low-cost electricity. Swain and Graham currently don’t receive any electricity from TVA. 

“TVA’s income is down $296 million compared to the same period last year; unfunded retirement liabilities have reached nearly $7 billion; over the last decade, TVA plans to consume $25 billion in new capital investments, and that’s on top of its current $24 billion in debt,” Meadows wrote. “Perhaps the Board should focus on getting its own house in order before targeting the owners of floating houses in Western North Carolina.”

TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson issued a lengthy response on June 6 to Meadows. While declaring a sunset on houseboats was a difficult decision, Johnson said, it was a necessary policy change in order to protect the natural resources entrusted to TVA’s care. He added that the concerns Meadows expressed prior to the May 5 ruling were instrumental in the TVA’s decision to extend the sunset clause from 20 years to 30 years. 

“TVA is giving compliant homeowners until 2046 to continue enjoying their homes, and this extensive sunset period is intended to mitigate any impact on floating house owners,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson disagreed with Meadows’ assertion that TVA was overstepping its authority. Under the act that created the TVA, the governmental entity is charged with unified development and regulation of the Tennessee River System, which gives TVA the authority to approve the construction and operation of obstructions that affect navigation, flood control and public lands.  

“TVA permits do not create property rights, as TVA’s regulations make clear, and the current policy is an exercise of TVA’s authority to place reasonable limits on floating houses,” Johnson wrote. “As you know, TVA must balance the protection of shore land and aquatic resources while allowing reasonable access to the water.”

The TVA stopped issuing houseboat permits in 1978 and grandfathered in the existing houseboats. Johnson said 223 houseboats on Fontana Lake are pre-1978 structures while the remaining 134 houseboats are not permitted and therefore are in violation of TVA regulations. 

Johnson said TVA does not support an exemption to the sunset policy for Fontana Lake structures, but recognizes the unique position of the counties surrounding the reservoir. Graham and Swain counties have a limited tax base because a majority of the land is owned by the national park, which is why the houseboat removal will create an even larger hardship for the local governments. 

“TVA staff will be meeting over the next few months with stakeholders and local officials most affected by the floating houses policy,” Johnson said. “These meetings will focus on how to best implement the policy, including future regulations and standards, and will explore opportunities for cooperation with marinas and floating house owners.”

As far as finances goes, Johnson said TVA had worked hard to improve its financial health by reducing its annual operational and maintenance costs by $600 million, its fuel expenses by $1 billion and its debt by $400 million in the last several years. 

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