By Collin Brooks
A new day was delivered in the form of a pen stroke for floating home owners on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s reservoirs, as President Barack Obama signed a bill on Dec. 23, with language that will prevent the TVA from banning “floating cabins” on its waters.
The language was part of a comprehensive bill called the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, also known as the WIIN (Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation) Act, with North Carolina lawmakers including Senators Richard Burr, Thom Tillis and Congressman Mark Meadows leading the push.
The language, which can be found in Section 5003 of the bill, scraps the TVA’s plan to require houseboats be removed after a 30-year grace period, which their board voted 7-2 in May to enact. However, the amendment does not reverse the ban on new houseboats being placed on its lakes.
The TVA estimated that there were close to 1,800 houseboats, or floating homes, on its 49 reservoirs in seven southeastern states. According to an environmental impact study completed in the spring of 2016 in Northeast Tennessee, the TVA reported that there were 133 floating houses on Boone Lake and another 37 on Watauga.
Karen Jenkins, a houseboat owner on Boone Lake, was all smiles on Thursday afternoon.
“We are very thankful that those lawmakers from North Carolina stepped up and supported us,” Jenkins said. “There is still work to be done, but the fact that we will be able to keep our homes is fantastic news. Because back in May, when the TVA enacted that sunset ruling, it essentially made our homes worthless. Because there is no way anyone would have purchased a home, knowing they couldn’t keep it.”
TVA Spokesperson Jim Hopson said that while the new legislation has changed the philosophy of how the floating homes will be dealt with in the long-term, it doesn’t change their mission.
“The big picture of this has not changed,” he said, “we have a responsibility to properly manage the reservoirs. Obviously we want the people to be there — floating house owners included. This just reinforces that we all collectively benefit when there are fair and reasonable standards and requirements made for safety, ensuring that the environmental consequences of these structures are appropriately dealt with and that any navigational hazards are considered, and appropriate protective measures are put in place.”
While the value and permanence of the homes has been reestablished, the work isn’t quite done, according to Michael Wilks, president of the Tennessee Valley Floating Home Alliance which was formed in March.
“There are a number of items as it relates to electrical safety, environmental safety and navigational safety that will still need to be discussed,” said Wilks, whose group is compromised of floating home owners, marina owners, renters and people that enjoy the TVA reservoirs.
The TVA established a ban on new floating homes except for those built on Feb. 15, 1978 – in 1977, but, what Wilks called the TVA’s “admitted blundering of its past regulatory enforcement” during his address to the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations in September, meant that unpermitted homes have been popping up ever since.
Those homes will have the opportunity to apply for a permit, once it is proven that they meet the new standards that will be set. Those are currently being formed by TVA staff and Hopson said that TVA hopes to put those up for public discussion at some point in 2017.
Owners will have between five and 15 years to bring their structures into compliance, based on the new legislation.
One thing that has been discussed openly is a registration or permit fee, similar to those for vehicles or boats, which would help regulate the floating homes. Jenkins said that she hopes the TVA will remember that many of the homes aren’t used year-round; she said that she only uses her for about six months out of the year — when Boone Lake is returned to normal levels.