Local landowner Greg Vital and two other property owners are fighting for their property rights as TVA has obtained a condemnation order against them so that it might survey the land and build transmission towers on it to support a proposed command center in Meigs County, right at the point where Hamilton, Meigs and Bradley counties meet.
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7
In 1933, Congress anointed the TVA with an incredible power—the power to take the property of private citizens in the name of the United States of America through eminent domain. Congress granted the TVA this power so that it could provide alleged public benefit.
The following rehearsal of property rights vis a vis the federal government is drawn from the work of Mr. Vital’s legal team.
“However, as so often happens when incredible power is given,” Mr. Vital notes in a court filing, “TVA has become all too comfortable with its power. Without public announcement, the TVA planned to relocate a substantial amount of its operations—and the people who serve in the jobs that run those operations—to a 147-acre property it purchased in fee simple in rural Meigs County, Tenn. In the process, the TVA has arbitrarily elected to divest four citizens of their property rights indefinitely so that the TVA improve the aesthetics of its new entryway by running transmission lines in a more aesthetically pleasing manner to its new facility.
Brusque, harsh steps by TVA
TVA in the Vital case chose to “exercise its power of eminent domain carelessly and without restraint, and that has led to a result the TVA may not actually have intended to seek at this time. Rather than attempt to cooperate with Mr. Vital (and the other landowners), and rather than provide notice of the lawsuit or of its intent to take the subject properties, the TVA sought in this ex parte lawsuit a ‘temporary right to enter’ Mr. Vital’s land to conduct surveying and siting activities.
“However, due to the TVA’s careless wielding of its power, the TVA has instead obtained immediate possession of an ambiguous “temporary” property right that has granted it immediate possession with no defining scope or durational limits and which ordered Mr. Vital to immediately surrender possession of the entire 72-acre plot.”
‘Just and liberal’ payment
The agency says it is paying Mr. Vital and each of the others a “just and liberal” F$1 as compensation for the temporary taking.
Mr. Vital says that TVA’s stated reason for wanting to enter the land, that “conducting surveys, core drilling, appraisals, title investigations, and related activities to determine what portion of said land or interest therein is necessary for the erection, operation, and maintenance of electric power transmission circuits,” is too vague.
How is its description not an actual taking vs. a temporary one? He wonders. “Despite stating that it seeks a temporary right to enter so that it may conduct surveys and related activities, no part of the TVA’s filings includes any defining limitations to ensure the taking is narrowed to a right to enter upon land to conduct these activities, as opposed to being an actual taking.”
On Nov. 29 the federal court judge Sandy Mattice granted TVA “immediate possession of the real property” and Mr. Vital is ordered to “surrender possession of said real property to the TVA pending further order of the Court.”
Agency’s huge power
The filing recounts the agency’s great powers from Congress. It can seize land from eminent domain. In 1933, Congress established the TVA in
the interests of national defense, “agricultural and industrial development,” “to improve navigation in the Tennessee River[,]” and “to control the destructive flood waters in the Tennessee River and Mississippi River Basins[.]” The TVA Act, 16 U.S.C. § 831 (“the Act”). The Act grants the TVA many powers, but perhaps the most notable is the power to use eminent domain to take the private property of citizens in the name of the United States and for its own Use to build dams, reservoirs, transmission lines, power houses, and other structures . . . at any point along the Tennessee River, or any of its tributaries.” The filing says the Supreme Court has made clear that when it comes to the TVA’s exercise of eminent domain, the TVA Act is to be liberally construed to carry out Congress’s purposes. TVA v. Welch, 327 U.S. 546, 551 (1946).
Judge urged undo first order
Because of these grants, Mr. Vital says, TVA is “subject to very few substantive constraints.”
“Although the power of the TVA is great, it must exercise those broad powers responsibly. In taking a citizen’s private property, the TVA must for several reasons be required to exercise its power in a manner that defines specifically the property right taken, if even for no other reason than to allow for meaningful calculation of just compensation for the taking.
Additionally, if applicable, when the TVA seeks a “temporary” right to enter property, the TVA must be required to define any property rights that are taken as well as any rights that would remain with the property owner of the condemned property during the taking. Accordingly, Mr. Vital requests that the Court set aside its Order of Possession (Doc. 5) and require the TVA to sufficiently justify the “temporary” right to enter in terms of scope and duration, as well as any rights Mr. Vital retains during this period of time. Alternatively, because Mr. Vital contends that the TVA’s careless use of power has in this instance resulted—possibly inadvertently—in an actual taking which the TVA’s deposit of $1.00 in nominal compensation is inadequate, Mr. Vital requests that the Court set aside its Order of Possession on that basis as well.”
Please define temporary
Mr. Vital demands to know what temporary means, because without a limi given, the time frame is not “temporary.”
“Although the TVA’s filings with the Court state that the public purpose
for the taking is the ability to conduct surveying and siting activities, the TVA made no efforts to limit the taking it sought in any way. For instance, though it claimed to seek a “temporary” right, the TVA did not in any way attempt to put a time frame on the length of time that ‘temporary’ right should last. *** This principle is axiomatic. A ‘temporary property right can only, by its nature, be granted for a defined duration of time, otherwise it is not temporary. And yet, as things stand today, the TVA appears to have been granted what amounts to a permanent property right.
What is left to the landowner?
Mr. Vital says the agency is effectively seizing its land for good, and has not identified which of his rights it is not seizing. “The TVA made absolutely no attempts to exercise reasonableness by making clear any property rights Mr. Vital would retain during the pendency of this indeterminate “temporary” taking.
As a result, the Court’s Order of Possession granted the TVA the right to immediately and without notice possess Mr. Vital’s entire 72-acre property and Mr. Vital was ordered to immediately surrender the same with no provision or description of what, if any, rights are retained.”