As the Tennessee Valley Authority was preparing secret plans to relocate its power operations center out of downtown Chattanooga over the past couple of years, the federal utility gave the $300 million project the code name "Project Viper."
Greg Vital, a Chattanooga developer who owns several hundred acres around the proposed site for the complex in southern Meigs County, thinks the name is an apt description of how TVA has "slithered into the community" and some fear may take a bite of its rural character and look.
"The name shocked me because there is no question that they chose a name that reflects their behavior in handling this project," Vital said. "They have been secretive and sliding into the unknown like a Viper and there still hasn't been any public discussion about this project and why it is needed here."
In August, TVA conducted an open house near the 167-acre site TVA bought for the new load control facility, which TVA wants to have in operation within five years for its "Grid 2023" program. The 185,000-square-foot structure will house about 200 employees and be the "brains" of TVA power grid controls.
TVA's power control center is now located in the basement of the Missionary Ridge building in TVA's Chattanooga Office Complex downtown. But Aaron Melda, vice president of transmission operations and power supply for TVA, said in an interview in August with the Times Free Press that the new facility is needed for better security and to support a new energy management system TVA is installing that will also involve a $300 million upgrade of its fiber optic lines along many of TVA's transmission lines.
"We think this will be transformative and will provide us a platform for the future to position TVA to provide the most competitive and reliable power," Melda said.
TVA is proposing to build its own sewage treatment facility and has filed an application for such treatment with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Melda said a number of major electric utilities are moving their power control centers out of urban areas to limit chances of a terrorist or electromagnetic pulse attack.
Despite some concerns by local neighbors, Meigs County Mayor Bill James, who said he learned about the project months ago, is supportive of TVA's investment in Meigs County.
"It will bring more jobs and money to our area and we need it since we're such a small, rural county," James said during the August open house by TVA. "We certainly do appreciate TVA coming to our county and, while we are growing, I think this will help us grow even more."
But Vital and others urged TVA to conduct a public meeting in the area to discuss all of the details of the facility, including what security it might have and how emergency response units and basic utilities will be provided to site near Georgetown.
"I'm not opposed to TVA building this complex, and I never have been," said Vital, the president of Morning Pointe development and the owner of a buffalo farm and other woodlands where TVA wants to extend transmission lines for its new power control center. "But they should have figured out how they were going to get their utilities there first. You would think that as big of an organization as TVA is and their 85-year history of winning people over and having generations turn against them, they would tried to figure our how to get the utilities to a site first."
Vital said his property, which TVA has targeted to run a 161-kilovolt line across, "is not for sale."
TVA can use its power of eminent domain to acquire property against the sellers wishes, but TVA spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said TVA hopes it can negotiate needed land purchases.
"The reason we had our open house is to show everyone our plans and to work with local residents to determine the best route (for the new transmission lines)," she said.
TVA officials contacted Monday were not able to immediately say why they chose the name "Viper" for the project in their applications to TDEC and others.
But a Facebook page created in response to the TVA project known as "Stop Destroying Tennessee Farms" has questioned TVA's approach and raised concerns TVA may use its eminent domain authority to buy land some may not want to sell.
In a post on the web site, Chattanooga Tea Party Founder Mark West said "if ever there was a David vs Goliath battle, this is it."
"To have an entity that is all-powerful, both economically and politically, confront the little guy, simply because he owns something they want, is an intimidating and often overwhelming struggle," West said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340