commentary (2007-04)

Maybe Baxter will concentrate his energies here

TVA Loss, Knoxville's Gain

by Barry Henderson

Bill Baxter's resignation from the TVA Board of Directors this week came as a mild surprise, but maybe it shouldn't have. Baxter was edged aside as chairman of the board when it was expanded last year and converted from a three-member, full-time board to a nine-member, part-time panel, directing TVA policy but having no role in the agency's day-to-day operations.

He took the comedown in stride at the time, but a signal that he was out of sync with the new directors came late in the year, when a TVA Land Use Policy was adopted on an 8-1 vote, with Baxter the lone dissenter.

Having served since 2001, his official reason for resigning was that he was limiting his own directorship to five years, the same as the new directors, in the spirit of the law change that he supported.

But it had to be difficult for him to accept that the leadership he once exerted had been diluted to the point where he was essentially a single voice with very limited ability to influence TVA policy.

In the time of his directorship and chairmanship, TVA has made a lot of progress toward limiting the discharge of pollutants from its coal-burning power plants' smokestacks, and it is still spending the million dollars a day on pollution abatement that his board authorized.

TVA finances also improved markedly during his tenure, though its debt, which was cut below $25 billion, remains one of the public's biggest concerns. The TVA nuclear-power-production program was revitalized by Baxter's board,   with the rehabilitation of Brown's Ferry Unit 1 in Alabama set well underway and an agreement reached with other utilities to develop a jointly financed new nuclear plant proposed in Mississippi.

Baxter was also a proponent of economic development all across the valley, one of the cornerstones of the 1933 TVA Act and a major component of the agency's business until Congress cut off federal appropriations for that purpose in the 1990s. He had the board considering and approving economic development proposals submitted by public and private entities until last year, when a moratorium was declared and the Land Use Policy finalized.

An impetus for limiting TVA's approval of the disposal of any more of its 293,000 acres of land in the valley was a land swap in Marion County that paved the way for a residential development on the shore of Nickajack Lake. That land trade kicked up a public fuss, and the upshot was that the new board has nixed any future land sale or disposal for residential purposes. It effectively boxes in the board from even considering any residential land use proposal, no matter how appropriate.

Baxter opposed that unnecessarily restrictive component, and his persuasion was instrumental in getting the final document modified to allow for industrial development in some instances, even when the industry is not dependent on water access.

New Chairman Bill Sansom conceded that TVA has more land than it can properly manage on its own, but he led the board to its restrictive position, prompted by measured public sentiment that was firmly in opposition to further disposal of TVA land. TVA had already transferred a half-million acres, mostly to other federal agencies or to states for public uses. It's commendable that TVA has always had an attitude of   responsibility for maintaining its land in the public interest, but Baxter saw that interest in the light of public benefit.

For instance, the new policy blocks a development proposed by and for the city of Rockwood on land the agency deeded to Rockwood in the 1950s with the restriction that it be used for recreational purposes. The little city was never able to find the funding for such a development until recently, when plans were drawn up for a marina/restaurant/condominium project valued at $45 million, to be financed in part by sales of the condos. That residential element has stopped the project, which would have almost doubled the city's tax base and provided recreational opportunities for the whole area, not just the condo buyers.

Worse, the original Land Use Policy draft would have restricted the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor site in Oak Ridge to redevelopment by an industry dependent on water access. If the policy had been adopted with that firm restriction, it would have precluded such future uses of the site as an automobile-production plant. Mercedes Benz had short-listed it for an auto plant several years ago, and other major manufacturers have shown interest, but they would not necessarily have to have water access.

Baxter believed the policy too restrictive, and he was right. Now he expects to return on a full-time basis to Holston Gas if he'll remain satisfied with that role. He has always been ambitious for himself, his state, his region and his city. A man who brags he works standing up, without a desk in his office, even at TVA, is not likely to sit still in the management of a gas company.

We could use his considerable energies right here in town.