Homeowners, leaders fight to save Fontana floating homes

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Laura Sneed was born in Minnesota, the land of 1,000 lakes, and recalls fun-filled childhood days of swimming, boating and watching the sunset fall over the lake.

So when she moved to Cherokee with her husband Erik Sneed, she wanted to make sure her four kids could have the same experience.

In 2014, the family bought a non-navigable houseboat on Fontana Lake. They enjoyed it so much, she said, that they bought a second houseboat the next year.

“It’s wonderful to be on the lake,” she said. “We swim and boat and jet ski and spend the entire weekend out on the lake. It’s beautiful out there.”

While now you can spend all day swimming and boating, a different kind of sunset might be falling over Fontana Lake – the removal of all houseboats in 20 years.

Following an Environmental Impact Study on floating houses conducted in April 2014, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in February offered two options for floating houses.

The First Alternative allows grandfathered houses, ones that were permitted before February 1978, to exist if under compliance with current rules and prohibits new floating houses.

The Second Alternative was to allow grandfathered and existing houses, prohibit new houses, but create a sunset date of 30 years to remove all floating houses.

The TVA chose alternative two, but tweaked it to make it a 20-year sunset and force homeowners to pay fees and stay within compliance of the rules in addition to paying the removal fee themselves.

The resolution will be heard during a TVA board meeting today (May 5) in Buchanan, Tennessee. If approved, the change will affect the 357 floating houses on Fontana Lake and more than 1,800 in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

“I was in complete shock,” said Laura Sneed. “I was completely unprepared and devastated.  How could I or anyone else have been prepared for something that wasn’t an option and the worst case scenario possible?” 


 The Fight To Save Floating Homes

When the news broke in late February, Erik and Laura searched for people who were protesting against it, but found no one.

So they decided to start the fight, and created the group Fontana Families for Floating Houses with a website and Facebook page to dispel accusations of the problems floating houses bring. 

Since the beginning of April, their online petition has more than 3,120 signatures and more than 812 comments.

One comment reads: “Such precious memories of times with family and friends are planted there every summer. Please don’t take this away.”

Another reads: “My family had a house boat in Dade County, Florida. They are not allowed anymore...I miss the lifestyle to this day.”

Local and state leaders are also taking a stand against the change.

On April 21, the Swain County Board Commissioners unanimous passed a resolution that opposes TVA’s proposal and asks TVA to eliminate the sunset agreement.

“They may be having problems in other places, but they (TVA) don’t need to include us,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “We’re in compliance with all the rules. Why are you punishing us for something we’ve taken care of?”

In addition to Swain, other county leaders including Graham and counties in Tennessee have passed similar resolutions against TVA’s proposal.  The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also stands against the matter.

State senator Jim Davis and U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows have written letters of opposition to the TVA as well.

In Meadows’ letter, he says, “Fontana Lake is a major recreational asset and economic engine for Western North Carolina. We want to preserve it for future generations, especially because it’s so foundational to the identity and vitality of surrounding Graham and Swain counties.  However, this proposal will directly affect hundreds and families and hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money.”


Battling Against TVA’s Reasons

Rebecca Tolene, TVA vice president of Natural Resources, has been the leader in trying to pass this proposal.  She has been with the TVA since 2002 when she was an attorney.

“It is important to remember that floating houses moored on TVA’s reservoirs take for private use this public resource,” she said in a press release. “They pose navigation and safety risks and they degrade water quality.”

In its study, the TVA looked at water quality, electrical safety and the fair use of public lands. 

Although some lakes in Tennessee may not be clean, Fontana Lake has shined in cleanliness. 

In 2006, Swain County Board of Commissioners passed a law forcing floating homes on Fontana to have a sewage tank and a flushing toilet, preventing people from dumping waste into the lake.

Within two months, the water quality improved tenfold.

In a study by Swain and Graham County Health Departments and Western Carolina, in 2006, they tested the fecal coliform, which is waste from animals and humans.  The EPA standard is 200-col/100 milliliters.

In layman’s terms, if the water was tested at 80-col/ 100 mL, it would equate to a teaspoon of waste for nearly 30,000 gallons of water.

Only two tested sites on Fontana Lake reached above the EPA standard in the 2006 study. Fifteen percent of the sites reached half the EPA standard of the 39 total samples, according to the study.

“If there was waste being dumped into the river, we would go after that,” Sneed said. “You don’t want to swim in that. It’s our children who are swimming in the water and the fish people are eating. Nobody wants to swim in waste.”

The TVA’s second reason for removing houseboats is electrical safety.  In its report, it states that people have been electrocuted and died on houseboats.  

It was noted, however, that none of the deaths occurred in Tennessee or North Carolina or on floating houses, but the deaths were on private-run marinas and docks.

“For the most part, people have solar,” Erik Sneed said. “There’s solar panels; there’s a dozen or so wind turbines, but none have electric with exception of the marina.”

The TVA’s third reason stated for removing the houseboats is that the owners don’t pay taxes.  Although they don’t pay taxes in Tennessee, the houseboat owners do in North Carolina. Monteith said that they create $12,540 in taxes for Swain County.

In its final response, the TVA said it impeded the fair use of public lands. 

“As someone who has a home and knows lots of people who have, I don’t know anyone who feels like they own their little piece of the lake, that’s not the concept in anyone’s mind,” Erik Sneed said. 

He said that the house placement isn’t up to them, but the marina owner, and they usually change spots once every year. 

He also said the floating house owners aren’t allowed to just go wherever they please and drop anchor. Instead, they have to stay where the marina operator places them.

 “There’s over 10,000 acres of lake surface at Fontana, and there’s 357 houses,” Sneed said. “If you took all of these houses and bunched them together in one spot, I doubt they would cover more than 2 or 3 acres, so the notion that these things have dominated the lake is silly.”

In the end, Laura and Erik Sneed hope they can come to a compromise that allows floating houses to continue to exist on Fontana Lake.

“Each homeowner group wants regulation,” he said. “We don’t mind compliance, and we don’t mind the fact no more houses need to be built. We agree we don’t own the lake, and we agree that we should pay our leases.”

“We agree to pump out our sewage tanks and pay fees and do all of these things, but we disagree that the TVA should unfairly just take everything away without any sort of compensation,” he said.

The Sneeds were clear to point out that compensation isn’t what he is after, he just wants his floating house.

“We bought the houses to spend time with the family,” Laura Sneed said. “We just want to give our children the experience of growing up by a lake.”

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