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Legislation to keep Fontana houseboats makes its way through Congress

Legislation to keep Fontana houseboats makes its way through Congress

Houseboat owners on Fontana Lake may get to keep their floating homes after all if legislation passes to exempt Fontana from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision to remove 1,800 structures from its lakes. 

Back in May, the TVA board of directors approved a 30-year sunset provision for all houseboats, claiming the structures on the water posed environmental, safety and navigational concerns. The new policy also requires owners to pay additional fees to the TVA during the next 30 years. 

Houseboat owners from all TVA reservoirs banded together to convince TVA to rethink the sunset clause, and Fontana stakeholders especially took issue with the accusations that they were polluting the lake. While some of those issues may persist on other reservoirs, Graham and Swain counties have an ordinance in place to ensure houseboat owners pump out their sewage properly.

When the TVA board made it clear it wasn’t going to budge on the sunset provision, houseboat owners and local government officials turned to their congressmen for help.

U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced an amendment to a water infrastructure bill — the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 — in the Senate while U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., introduced a similar amendment in the House to exempt Fontana Lake from the TVA’s new policy. The amendments have passed both the House and Senate but now the bill has to make it through Conference between the House and Senate before the president can sign it.

“I’m pleased that the full Senate has passed this legislation, which will hopefully bring some relief to North Carolinians in Swain and Graham Counties who are worried about losing their homes because of the TVA’s proposed ban,” Burr said in a press release. “Many of these families have been living on the lake for decades, and no one should have to worry about losing their home because of intrusive government policies.”

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Meadows and Burr both wrote letters to the TVA earlier this year opposing the 30-year sunset on all houseboats but the TVA board made it clear during its August meeting that it would not reconsider the ruling. That’s when the congressmen took legislative action to prevent what they consider an overreach of the TVA’s authority as a federal corporation. 

“The TVA’s decision to ban floating cabins has already had devastating effects for hundreds of hard-working owners and the surrounding economy in my district — even well before the 30-year timeline expires,” Meadows said in a press release. “This is yet another example of the federal government choosing to get involved without seriously evaluating the consequences placed upon tax-paying families.”

Meadows also called for a hearing before the Subcommittee on Government Operations — which he chairs — to hear testimony from the TVA, houseboat owners and government officials. TVA did not walk away the winner that day. Meadows and other subcommittee members were critical of TVA’s history of taking without compensation and its lack of proof to show houseboats are causing environmental damage on TVA lakes. 

Laura Sneed, a houseboat owner on Fontana, spoke at the congressional hearing and has also been instrumental in the fight to keep floating homes. She is hopeful the bill will get passed and her family will get to keep their investment on the lake. 

“The language is slightly different between the two versions — the House version is a bit stronger — so they'll need to work it out so it all matches for our section and everything else that is in the bill as a whole,” Sneed said. “We anticipate that the Conference will happen after the election and then the president will hopefully sign it in December. Fingers crossed that it all without a hitch. I’ve learned with the political process that you have to stay on your toes as anything can change in a heartbeat.”

The Tennessee Valley Floating Home Alliance continues to fundraise to cover the cost of legal counsel and public policy advocates — so far the group has raised about $30,000 toward a $50,000 goal. 

“We've been very fortunate to not have to put up a legal fight as of yet, since it has all been political,” Sneed said. “But that effort alone is pricey as we have an amazing political consultant who has worked tirelessly to make sure our bill was able to get the support they needed in Washington.”

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