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TVA board explored disposing of land
Directors discussed move before shoreline sale ban

By Duncan Mansfield
Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE — Before deciding to ban the sale of Tennessee Valley Authority shoreline to private developers, TVA’s new directors briefly considered disposing of the property entirely in order to end the debate and pay off some debt.

“Yeah, we talked about letting somebody trade it off,” TVA Chairman Bill Sansom told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

More than 60 letters from local, state and federal officials — out of some 5,000 public comments received by the agency — released this week by TVA to the AP suggest the level of interest in the issue and pressure on the directors of the nation’s largest public utility.

Ultimately, the TVA Board of Directors voted 8-1 on Nov. 30 to make permanent a temporary moratorium on land sales for private development, ensuring public access and preservation to some 293,000 acres managed by TVA along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries.

The discussion didn’t get very far, but Sansom said the idea of turning over or selling off the property seemed appealing initially to TVA’s six new board appointees, including Sansom, who were getting calls about the issue while awaiting Senate confirmation last spring.

Two controversial land swaps to support private developments in southeastern Tennessee made it “a hot issue when we showed up,” the Knoxville businessman said. “I kidded (top managers), ‘What are we trading (to get) two (acres) for one for when can’t even figure out how to run one?”’

Use money for debt?

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore confirmed there was some sentiment that “maybe we ought to just sell it outright and use the money” for other purposes, such as reducing TVA’s $25 billion longterm debt.

“Let me say as a newcomer, if you heard what we heard you’d have thought we had several billion dollars worth of property,” Sansom said.

“And so if you inherit this big deal, why don’t you let somebody have it? I don’t mean give it to them, but in exchange for debt or something,” he said. “If it is that big.”

But TVA’s new directors quickly realized the quantity of TVA’s land holdings “isn’t that much” and in any event should remain protected, Sansom said — even if some land-swapped lots for a new high-end community on Nickjack Lake near Chattanooga are now selling for up to $600,000 each.

The 293,000 acres under TVA’s control are all that remain from 1.3 million acres acquired by the agency in the 1930s for flood control, river navigation and hydroelectric power programs. The rest was inundated, sold off or given away.

Officials mixed

Among those urging TVA in the letters released this week to keep the door open on land deals were U.S. Reps. Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Robert Aderholt of Alabama, both Republicans.

“While we have the important responsibility of land stewardship, I have serious concerns that any policy that does not leave room for exceptions will stifle potential investment and discourage economic development,” wrote Wamp, particularly on Watts Bar Lake in his district.

City and county officials individually and through the Tennessee Association of County Mayors pleaded for land use flexibility, while environmental agencies, wildlife organizations and lake residents praised the ban on land sales for private development.

Tennessee state Reps. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, and Joe McCord, R-Maryville, noted that the Tennessee House voted 96-0 in May to urge TVA to “refrain from sale, trade or otherwise transfer of land it currently owns and has designated for public use to private developers.”

Still, state Rep. John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville, wrote that “economic development is one of the core values of TVA” and his rural Middle Tennessee district bordering Kentucky Lake could use TVA’s help.

U.S. District Judge James Jarvis of Knoxville wrote TVA not as a federal judge but as a lawyer who represented families in the 1960s that lost their farms along the Little Tennessee River to make way for TVA’s Tellico Lake.

Families lost land

“These people lost their land for a small pittance. Land that they farmed and that their families farmed for years. A river bottom which grew 125 bushels of corn an acre without fertilizer,” he wrote.

“Now, put yourselves in the place of these people, many of which are now dead, but their families are here. They remember. How would you feel when the government takes your land and then sells it for a profit — not a little profit, but a big profit.”

Jarvis told the TVA directors he knew their job wasn’t easy.

“This is a hard question. I know it is,” he wrote. “But to me it is a no-brainer.”

“I think this board did a good job of learning and listening,” Sansom told the AP. “I think we have done the right thing.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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