Houseboat owners fight to keep their property
Scott Collins’ family has owned a houseboat on Fontana Lake since 1965 — that’s five generations that have made lasting family memories while enjoying a little rest and relaxation in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Collins’ great-grandfather immigrated to this area from the Netherlands about a decade before Fontana Lake was formed in 1944. He worked as a hydraulic engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority and helped build the dam. Collins’ grandfather spent a lot of time fishing on the lake and eventually built a fishing shack because there were no other places to stay back then. That fishing shack from 1965 is now a two-bedroom houseboat that the family still enjoys today. They travel from Asheville every other weekend during the season to stay at their houseboat.
“I was down there a week before I was born actually because my mother was there on Labor Day weekend of 1966, and we’ve had a constant presence there ever since,” Collins said. “It’s a big part of the family that’s been an identity type of thing for us to have this place in the Smokies we go in the summer.”
Collins and others can’t stand the thought of not being able to pass on that legacy and that property to the next generation, which could happen if the Tennessee Valley Authority moves forward with its proposal to remove all houseboats from the lakes in 20 years.
Bob Gurley of Morganton said he hoped some day to pass his houseboat on to his children and grandchildren to enjoy, but now that dream may be fading from view. It’s a place where his entire extended family has come together in the summer for the last 12 years.
Gurley remembers about four years ago when his 5-year-old grandson suffered from third-degree burns and was in excruciating pain at the hospital.
“The doctor told him, ‘Dallas, think of your happy place. Where is it?’” Gurley recalled. “And he said his happy place was Papa’s houseboat on the lake. It will devastate my kids and grandkids if they force us out.”
Petition picks up momentum
TVA’s proposal to remove all 1,800 houseboats from its reservoirs would affect some 350 structures on Fontana Lake, but property owners aren’t going to let it happen without a fight.
Laura and Eric Sneed, who have heavily invested in their houseboat for the last three years, started a petition opposing the TVA’s proposal and it already has more than 1,600 signatures. They plan to present the petition and an alternative plan at the TVA’s May 5 meeting before a decision is made.
While the TVA stopped issuing new houseboat permits in 1978, the Sneeds purchased one of the older houseboats that had a grandfathered-in TVA permit because it was constructed before 1978 when the regulations changed. They spent thousands of dollars to fix it up, add on a dock and another smaller structure for more bedroom space.
“People have put their entire savings into these houses, and now TDA is basically saying because the number of houses have gotten out of control, they’re going to remove all of them,” Laura said.
Last summer the TVA held a meeting and presented several possibilities for dealing with concerns over the houseboats. The options were to do nothing, not allow any new houses or have all of them removed within 30 years.
The Sneeds attended the meeting and weren’t too concerned when they left because it appeared the TVA was leaning toward allowing existing houses to stay while preventing any new ones from popping up.
“But then in February they announced they were looking at a 20-year sunset on all of them, even the ones that are grandfathered in,” Laura said.
TVA’s proposal also states that houseboat owners will have to remove their houses at their own expense, which could cost $5,000, $8,000 or more depending on the size of the structure.
“Some of these houses are huge — some people will either burn them down or just abandon them because they can’t justify spending that kind of money to get it off the lake,” Laura said.
Collins has one of the largest permits and would have to pay a heavy fee to remove his houseboat. If the government wanted to come take someone’s land under eminent domain, Collins said, they would have to compensate the owner. He doesn’t understand how the TVA can force people to leave at their own expense. If the proposal goes through, he said he wouldn’t spend the money on demolition.
“With two years to go I’ll pull the TVA numbers off the house and push it off the bank,” Collins said. “Why would I pay a demolition company to come tear it down?”
Houseboats boost economy
Marina owners along Fontana Lake say they will go out of business if the TVA decides to get rid of houseboats.
Tony Sherrill has operated Alarka Boat Dock on the Swain side of the lake for almost 40 years. He has about 180 houseboats under his supervision. His crews are out on the lake every day making sure the floating houses are securely anchored and stay in the water as the lake levels ebb and flow.
“If they pass this it will close me down. I can operate for the next 20 years, but it will be downhill from the time they sign that paper,” Sherrill said. “People are done — they’re not going to update or maintain their houses for the next 20 years and my business will go downhill.”
Because of the 60-foot water level fluctuation during the year on Fontana, Sherrill’s business is already dependent on how quickly the TVA fills up the lake each year. He said some years the lake season could be six months while other years it’s three months long.
Debbie Prince, co-owner of Prince Boat Dock with her husband David, said houseboat owners make up a majority of her business. If the 140 houseboats located in her marina go, so does the revenue.
“I basically feel like it would shut us down. We could still keep boats but most people have a floating house, so if the houses are gone, people will only bring their boat out for a day,” Prince said. “It will be detrimental to our business.”
In addition to the five marinas that exist on Fontana Lake, Prince said it was important to remember how many other businesses benefit from the revenue coming from houseboats — ice vendors, gas companies, bait and tackle shops, boat dealerships, convenience stores, restaurants and more.
“Most people coming from Atlanta or Canton — we have people coming in from all over — they’re not going to buy groceries in Atlanta, they wait until they get to Robbinsville or Bryson City,” Prince said. “We have customers leave the lake and go eat at restaurants and go zip lining and rafting or go to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to gamble.”
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said there is no doubt the TVA’s proposal would be devastating for Swain and Graham’s economy by putting marinas out of business and hurting the tourism industry. Since a majority of Swain County land is occupied by national park land, Swain doesn’t have much private land to tax to raise revenue. The county heavily relies on tourism dollars.
For Monteith, this is just another jab at Western North Carolina by the federal government. When the federal government took Swain property to build the dam and create Fontana Lake in the early 1940s, a road from Bryson City was flooded and destroyed. The feds promised to rebuild the road but never did. Then they agreed in 2000 to give Swain County a $52 million cash settlement in exchange for not building the road back, but Swain has seen only $12.7 million of that settlement. The county decided last month to sue the federal government for the money owed.
“Back in 1940 they (the federal government) took 1,100 acres for the lake and in return how many schools and churches were flooded?” Monteith said. “And then there’s 44,000 acres they took for the park. They just took and took and took and now they’re taking the only income we got for this lake.”
• The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Board of Directors will hold a meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 5, in Buchanan, Tennessee. Though the official agenda will not be released until April 28, the board might discuss and/or make a decision regarding a proposal to remove all houseboats from the lakes within the next 20 years.
• For more information about the TVA’s proposal, visit www.tva.com.
• To learn more about the Fontana Families For Floating Houses’ efforts to stop the proposal from going through, visit www.fontanafamilies.com and sign their petition.
Facts about the TVA
• The Tennessee Valley Authority is a corporate agency of the United States that provides electricity for business customers and local power distributors serving more than 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states.
• TVA receives no taxpayer funding, deriving virtually all of its revenues from sales of electricity.
• In addition to operating and investing its revenues in its electric system, TVA provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists local power companies and state and local governments with economic development and job creation.