Live-aboards could be evicted
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:36 PM
"For Wes George, home is a 37-foot, fiberglass trawler at the end of a dock at Oak Harbor Marina.It's just something I always wanted to do, he says of his decision to leave land three years ago for a home afloat. The best thing about it is the freedom. ... You can take your backyard and put it wherever you want.But the live-aboard lifestyle George and 23 others at the marina enjoy could be headed the way of Puget Sound king salmon runs if Public Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher follows through on an unprecedented effort to oust live-aboards from state aquatic lands.Belcher backs her stance by citing a 1984 state law that reserves state aquatic lands for recreational use by the general public. The Oak Harbor Marina - like many in Washington - sits on state land, and therefore falls under the law.Belcher's drive has drawn considerable heat, including a lawsuit from the Puget Sound Live-aboard Association.But State Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Susan Zemek said the opposition is limited.It's a small but vocal minority, two to 3,000 people in the whole state, Zemek said. It's an issue that a lot of people don't know about or care about.George thinks otherwise.I'm not sure where she's coming from, he said of Belcher. I've heard her name in the past but now, everyone who owns a boat or lives on a boat knows her name.At the heart of the issue is Belcher's interpretation of the 1984 State Aquatic Lands Act, which gave the state guidance on how to manage 2.4 million acres of aquatic land owned by the public. The law encourages water-dependent use and discourages non water-dependent use. When she was with the Legislature, Belcher helped draft the law and is now invoking it to evict live-aboards.We believe the law is very clear in saying that the land is owned by the public and should be kept for public use, like commerce and navigation, Zemek said.And live-aboards? Living on your boat changes the use of that land from recreational to housing, Zemek said.Oak Harbor harbor master Dave Williams is struck by Belchers's interpretation of the law - how a recreational boat is one thing, and the live-aboard in the next slip, another.The commissioner says that if you have a boat in a marina, that's a water-dependent use, but if you live on your boat in the marina, it's not, Williams said.My personal opinion is that it was not the original intent of the Legislature in 1984 to eliminate live-aboards, he added. And I cannot explain why at this late date - 16 years after the fact - the DNR is now deciding to use that portion of the legislation to remove live-aboards.One reason stems from problems the DNR has encountered in Seattle, Zemek said.On several occasions, the agency has been drawn into disputes over hulking houseboats, barges and floating offices. Their owners would anchor, or permanently attach to a pier, then insist they qualified as vessels when told to move.All of which have added to a cluttered waterfront, Zemek said.What happens is every time there's a line drawn, people have skirted around it and made an exception, she said. In 1984, they grandfathered in 32 houseboats on Lake Union. Today there's probably 55 or 60. Every time the (City of Seattle) tries to enforce the law, someone gets sued. So far, Zemeck said, the DNR has had some successes in evicting live-aboards.Earlier this year, the agency settled a lawsuit with Diamond Parking which owns three Lake Union Marinas. Part of the settlement required the removal of live-aboards from public land.Zemek said other live-aboards will be ousted when it comes time for a marina to renew its lease with the state. At that point, the DNR will ask marina operators to move live-aboards off state lands.There have been some marinas that say, 'No problem,' she said.WIlliams said he thinks that's because there has been little choice to do otherwise.It's my understanding they (DNR) are making it a condition of the lease that live-aboards not be allowed, WIlliams said. That's what they did in Lake Union.He also has a different perspective on live-aboards.I think live-aboards are a positive asset in a marina - they certainly have been in ours, he said. They tend to take ownership for the facility, provide eyes and ears around the clock when marina staff is not present, and they add an element of security. In many of the emergency responses in my time here, the first person, or persons on the scene to render assistance have been our live-aboards.Regardless of how Belcher fares in the lawsuit, or how successful she is in ridding Washington of live-aboards, George and the 23 others who live on their boats have some time to consider their next move.The lease at Oak Harbor Marina comes up for renewal Jan. 31, 2004.So I have hope that this issue will have worked itself out in a reasonable manner well before that date, Williams said.So does George. He likes his home.I wake up in a marine environment, surrounded by boats with waves lapping at my hull, he said. So far, it's been one of the best decisions I ever made."