Two sides face off over TVA land use policy Developers, conservationists have their say at hearing on issue

By REBECCA FERRAR,  August 17, 2006

Developers and conservationists squared off Wednesday over TVA's development of a key land use policy, with one side urging the federal utility to continue land sales to create jobs and the other calling for protection of TVA's natural resources.

Each made their case at a hearing convened by the Community Relations Committee of TVA's new part-time board. The committee plans to establish a policy on the use of TVA land and recommend it to the full TVA board for approval.

The policy will include whether TVA maintains a moratorium on most land transactions, including the sale of prime lakefront property to developers. TVA heard from panels made up of developers, conservationists and government agencies that oversee public land.

The committee also held a public forum during which citizens could comment on the proposed policy, and about 50 people participated.

Mike Ross, owner of Rarity Communities who has built upscale residential areas including one on Tellico Lake, told the committee that allowing the purchase of TVA land for development creates jobs in the Tennessee Valley and increases the tax base, which helps schools.

Ross said his company has been developing more than 4,600 acres adjacent to TVA lakes with five projects near Oak Ridge, Jellico, Sweetwater, Loudon and Vonore. He added that the total value of those projects when completed will be $4.4 billion.

"We estimate the amount of property taxes alone paid in the four Tennessee counties where our projects are located will be $22 million each year," Ross said. "Of course this amount does not include state and local sales taxes paid.

"That is why Rarity Communities is proud to participate with TVA to allow some of the valley's most economically challenged counties to capitalize on their natural assets to grow their tax revenue to improve their schools and other services."

Everett Roberson of the Watts Bar Development Authority, an economic development agency representing Meigs and Rhea counties, asked TVA for access to 1,700 acres in those two counties for a high-end residential project.

"It would benefit both counties and create schools, allowing for economic development in both counties," Roberson said.

The committee also heard from government agencies that oversee public land, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cherokee National Forest, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Gov. Phil Bredesen's office, which oversees the governor's land trust.

Those agencies, with the exception of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said development on their land is not permitted.

Leading off the conservationist panel was Russell Townsend, an archeologist and the preservation officer for the Cherokee Nation. He urged TVA to preserve Cherokee heritage scattered across TVA lands, including acreage submerged at TVA reservoirs.

"TVA's responsibility to protect these resources is the most important thing TVA can do," Townsend said. "I would like to take back the message to my chief that TVA is concerned about protecting lands." So far, he said, TVA has done a good job.

Billy Minser, a wildlife conservationist, noted that 22 million people visit TVA lakes each year. TVA acquired 1.3 million acres at the agency's start under eminent domain, displacing 16,909 families, and 293,000 acres are left today, he said. Remaining land includes TVA facilities, recreational areas and other government and community uses.

"We need a policy we can all live by," Minser said. "Do not use eminent domain for economic development. Replacing farming on fertile, productive lands with industry and dense housing is short-sighted."

Sandra Goss, executive director of the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, said her group's vision for TVA public lands includes protecting water quality, preserving wild and sensitive lands and promoting a "sustainable and viable economy with equitable public access to protected lands and waters."

Like Minser, she said land obtained by eminent domain remains a public resource.

During the public comment session, Joe McCaleb, of Hendersonville, Tenn., stressed that Congress created TVA in 1933 to promote navigation, flood control, electricity generation and the social and economic well-being of the Tennessee Valley.

"Nowhere in the TVA Act has Congress given TVA the power to sell, transfer, lease or swap land," McCaleb said. "You need to stop it."

Bill Clabough, former state senator and currently executive director of the Foothills Land Conservancy in Blount County, applauded the board for imposing the land-sale moratorium.

He said the conservancy stands ready to help TVA develop a land policy that protects TVA lands for future generations.

"The Foothills Land Conservancy appreciates the opportunity to show our support for a land-use management practice that includes natural areas, recreation land, open space and resource conservation areas," Clabough said.

The hearing was held in conjunction with the Regional Resource Stewardship Council, which advises TVA on natural resource issues and meets again today.