The move made major waves throughout the lake communities, including homeowners on Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties. At the end of a yearlong battle, the existing permitted homes were saved by legislation, but many of the new policies TVA adopted in May 2016 still stand. The TVA is also nearly ready to roll out a new set of policies that will regulate the floating homes that have been grandfathered in.
According to the TVA’s existing policies, no new floating homes can be constructed on its public waterways. TVA Spokesperson Jim Hopson said any new structure built on TVA lakes after Dec. 16, 2016, is in violation of current regulations.
“There have been no new approved floating cabins constructed on Fontana after Dec. 16, 2016. Any new construction would be in violation of TVA’s current Section 26a regulations, as well as the WIIN Act,” he said. “Under our current regulations, owners of floating cabins in existence before Dec. 16, 2016, may rebuild their structures, but only after consulting with TVA prior to any construction activities.”
For clarification, the TVA board prohibited any new houseboats on its reservoirs back in 1971, but without proper enforcement, the number has continued to increase and houses already on the lakes have been added onto and expanded without proper permitting.
TVA staff met with Fontana Lake floating home owners Sept. 12 at Alarka Boat Dock. With nearly 50 people in attendance, including a couple county commissioners, TVA staff gave floating homeowners an update on the progress being made and how the homes on the water would be managed going forward.
Hopson said the new rules for floating cabins are still undergoing internal review but should be released to the public later this fall. The public will then have 90 days to review the new rules and provide comment on them before the TVA Board of Directors votes to adopt them.
In the spring of 2016, the TVA called for a total ban on floating cabins on its reservoirs at the recommendation of staff, which means more than 2,000 documented homes would have to be removed from the lakes and homeowners would lose their investments. There are about 350 floating homes moored in Fontana Lake, and Fontana’s homeowners were some of the most outspoken in the fight to keep their homes on the lake.
TVA’s reasons for removing the floating homes was threefold — safety, sanitation and water quality. The TVA built dams on the Tennessee River to tame its floods, produce electricity and use its waters for navigation. At the time, Rebecca Tolene, TVA vice president of natural resources, said houseboats went against the TVA’s mission to support recreation that is enjoyed by millions of people every year.
Another argument was that floating homes were causing major pollution in the lakes, but Fontana homeowners claimed the issues TVA was having with floating homes wasn’t happening on Fontana. There was a push about 15 years ago to clean up Fontana and stop houseboat owners from polluting the lake with sewage and grey water. The Fontana Lake Users Association formed and lobbied officials in Swain and Graham counties to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste.
The 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 boat dock owners.
The floating home owners were fine with some of the other regulations the TVA wanted to put in place — they didn’t mind paying more fees or taxes and adhering to stricter ordinances — but they could not accept the 30-year sunset clause on all floating homes.
County commissioners were also not pleased with the TVA’s decision. In Swain County where the economy is dependant on outdoor recreation tourism, commissioners didn’t want to see the marinas go out of business or lose sales tax revenue from all the floating home owners traveling to the lake throughout the year.
The fight to save their homes included several Fontana owners and county commissioners traveling to Washington, D.C., in September 2016 to speak before the Subcommittee on Government Operations during a public hearing.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, who chaired the subcommittee, was heavily critical of the TVA’s policies and lack of enforcement over the years as he questioned staff members.
“The TVA’s proposal to ban floating cabins has already had devastating effects for hundreds of hard-working owners — even well before the 30-year timeline expires,” Meadows said in a press release at the time. “This is yet another example of the federal government choosing to get involved without seriously evaluating the consequences placed upon tax-paying families. I call on my colleagues in the House to move swiftly on this bill and make a clear statement that this kind of government overreach will not be tolerated.”
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 Meadows introduced a similar amendment in the House to exempt Fontana Lake from the TVA’s new policy. The amendments passed and were signed into law Dec. 16, 2016.
Going forward, existing permitted floating homes will be allowed to be renovated or rebuilt as long as the process is done through the TVA and that the house’s footprint doesn’t get any larger on the water.
On Jan. 19, 2019, TVA published Phase I rule amendments applicable to floating cabins for public review and comment. The amendments redefine “nonnavigable houseboats” and “floating houses” using one term — “floating cabins”; prohibit new floating cabins on the Tennessee River System after Dec. 16, 2016; provide limited mooring standards; and require owners of floating cabins to register the floating cabin with TVA.
The new policies coming out later this fall will include standards for electrical, wastewater, mooring and flotation. The amendments will also include information concerning compliance dates, compliance fees, relocations of floating cabins, rebuilding, maintenance, modifications and combining of existing floating cabins. Floating cabins should not be modified or altered based upon the proposed amendments as significant changes could occur before the rules are finalized.
In developing the proposed amendments, TVA worked with a stakeholder group representing various interests and viewpoints related to the use and management of floating cabins. The stakeholder group members included floating cabin owners, marina owners, federal and state regulatory agencies, anglers, local power companies and lake user associations. This group met several times between August 2017 to May 2018 to provide input on the development of health, safety and environmental standards, and future regulations.
When available, the proposed rules will be posted on TVA’s website at https://www.tva.gov/environment/shoreline-construction/floating-cabins.