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TVA bans new floating homes, but allows existing homes to stay

Since the 1950s, floating homes on the water have been an endangered species in the US. With the exception of those on city- or county-owned waters in Winona, La Crosse, and Brownsville, boathouses are all but extinct on the Mississippi River. On Tennessee Valley Authority controlled waters in the Tennessee River watershed, floating homes are also endangered.

The TVA and state DNRs differentiates between houseboats — primarily boats with their own power that one could live on — and floating homes or boathouses — primarily homes that can not move under their own power. Many people live fulltime or seasonally aboard houseboats in private marinas all over the country.

The focus has not been on the needs of families who have lived on the water for generations, or families whose homes and livelihood may depends on living on the water. Rather, many of these floating homes are expensive, and sometimes extravagant waterfront properties, and so the argument has centered on the substantial investment that would be lost for these homeowners.

Just this year, the TVA attempted to ban homes in the TVA system but gave them a (temporary) stay of execution. There are almost 2000 homes on TVA waters, most on the Clinch and Little Tennessee Rivers.

A Tennessee Valley Authority study revealed the rapid growth of unpermitted floating houses, or “non-navigable structures,” has raised concerns about potential environmental and safety impacts. Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

TVA bans new floating homes, but allows existing homes to stay on lakes for 30 years

Times Free Press
May 5th, 2016
by Dave Flessner

The Tennessee Valley Authority will ban new floating homes on its lakes, but a divided TVA board voted Thursday to allow most of the 1,836 floating homes already on TVA reservoirs to stay in place for up to 30 more years.

TVA backed away from a plan to sink immobile houseboats and floating homes within the next 20 years after directors were flooded with complaints from owners of floating houses and their marinas who said they were never told that they could be forced off the lake.

Under the new policy adopted by a 7-2 vote on Thursday, all floating homes will have to be permitted under new safety and environmental rules that TVA will develop as it continues to refine its regulations over the next six months. No new permits will be issued, and existing homes will have to be removed from any public waters in 30 years.

The Tennessee Valley Authority wants to remove floating houses from its reservoirs within the next 20 years. The utility has cited concerns about potential environmental and safety impacts.

“These structures amount to a commercial development of private communities on public waters,” TVA President Bill Johnson said. “Like national and state parks, which prohibit private residential use of public resources, the land and water we manage are owned by the public.”

Several TVA directors wanted more time to consider the issue after more than 40 speakers asked TVA not to force them to remove their floating houses from TVA lakes. Many made impassioned appeals to TVA not to undermine their real estate investments or to take away their summer family vacation homes.

Debbie Prince, owner of Prince Boat Dock for the past 20 years, said shutting down floating homes at marinas will hurt lakefront communities.

“Our counties have the highest unemployment in the state, and we can’t afford to put more people out of work,” she said.

Floating home owner Kim Hall said the new policy could take away nearly $100 million of investments in homes, marinas and supporting businesses around TVA lakes, which she said is contrary to TVA’s economic development mission.
“Oregon, Washington and Florida, as well as parts of Canada, have all made floating homes work on their lakes,” she said. “Why can’t TVA?”

Dozens of owners of floating homes in the Tennessee Valley said they bought their homes with the assurance that they could keep their homes on TVA’s public reservoirs.

Floating homes are anchored on barges in more than 180 marinas, mostly on Norris, Fontana and Boone reservoirs in East Tennessee and North Carolina. The owners pay fees to the local marinas, but not to TVA, and they don’t pay property taxes.

“These 180 marina assets across the Tennessee Valley are powerful economic assets to Tennessee,” said E.L. Morton, mayor of Campbell County.

Morton said forcing floating homes off TVA reservoirs will hurt rural counties and discourage tourism in the region. In Campbell County, Morton estimates $9 million in business could dry up if TVA goes through with plans to sunset all floating homes.

TVA directors acknowledged that the federal utility has not enforced its own land policy against building on public land or adequately tried to implement its 1978 policy that required floating homes to be approved and licensed. Nearly half of the floating homes in the Valley are not properly registered.

“It is very clear that enforcement by TVA has been lax — it has been uneven over the years and we need to do something about that,” Johnson said. “I apologize for that. But it’s hard for me to say that lax enforcement has created a perpetual right for these floating home owners to stay on public properties.”

TVA Director Mike McWherter, the chairman of the TVA board committee that studied the new policy of floating homes, urged the board to delay any decision until August after what he said was the most hotly debated and contested issue during his term on the board. Commissions in eight Tennessee counties and the Tennessee Legislature and some members of Congress all passed or signed resolutions asking TVA not to remove existing floating homes on TVA lakes.

“It is clear that TVA has made a mess out of this over the years and it needs to be resolved,” McWherter said. “Our inactivity has created an economic monster for TVA and the people affected by this.”

But the board voted 5-4 against the motion to table the issue.

TVA Director Peter Mahurin said those who bought floating homes should have realized that they had no permanent claim on lakes that are publicly owned.

“Buying a piece of property on which you don’t have a title opinion is not a good idea,” he said. “Perpetual ownership of property on public property — I cannot see how that is permissible or possible.”

But many of those who have bought floating homes on TVA lakes said they were told by TVA representatives or local real estate salesmen that they didn’t need a permit and they could stay at their marina docks as long as they want.

Mark Godsey, a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati, said he bought a floating home on Norris Lake after being assured that such homes were legal and a good long-term investment.

“What I saw was an open and thriving environment for these homes,” he said. “I fell in love with the lake, so I bought my floating home, which represents a significant amount of my life’s savings.”

Godsey and others said a ban on such floating homes will undermine his investment.

[Edit: Spelling errors corrected in original article.]

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