Liveaboard lifestyle threatened
October 14, 2010 · 3:21 PM
Ted Stoughton looks over his shoulder as he paddles away from his home and says, “Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up with a smile. I’d be hard pressed to ever leave a place as wonderful as this.”
Stoughton paddles to the city dock nearly every day to embark on his daily routine. He loves his simple life, and he doesn’t need much, he says. His $600 monthly social security check is enough to take care of his boat and daily needs.
Since 1984, when he first arrived, he’s watched as the number of liveaboards swelled to as many as 20 and then dwindled down to just him and a couple others. Then back up again. Many come and go, depending on the season, paying just for the costs of their boats and what they need to survive.
It’s a lifestyle he and many others have grown to love. But it appears destined to end.
Stoughton, an elder and spokesperson for the community, has been involved in a decade-old battle to either establish a legal alternative for liveaboards or force them out of the harbor. In the absence of a lease agreement with the city by the Oct. 1 deadline, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has started the process of removing those in trespass with an end result of clearing the harbor of all residential vessels.
Although Stoughton’s heard threats before, this is the first time he’s felt a forced departure is a real possibility.
“I came to this harbor knowing nothing lasts forever,” Stoughton said. “I’m hoping they’ll find a way to keep us. But I’m ready to accept what the community has decided for us. I like all the people trying to get rid of us and I understand their frustrations. I just don’t agree with their solution of us leaving.”
Many in the community have tried to find a way to keep the community afloat. It’s a community with a spirit of acceptance that’s always struck Stoughton as unique of most neighborhoods – an acceptance that at times can be troublesome when the wrong person wanders in.
However, disrespectful visitors are the exception and not the rule, he says, and the overall spirit of the liveaboard community is something he feels many have grown to appreciate as a vibrant part of the tapestry making up the greater Bainbridge community.
Others would fervently disagree.
Concerns, including legal action, have surfaced from for years over what many see as an unfair and illegal use of the harbor, environmental concerns and DNR failing to enforce its own regulations.
A group of liveaboard elders and other community members plan to meet directly with DNR officials in Olympia on Oct. 18.
Ray Nowak, a merchant seaman who’s called the harbor home since 1990, said he’s glad the city has stepped out of the lease agreement.
“This has been just a perpetual hammer poised over our society. This is our chance to talk to the right people, to finally talk to Mr. Big,” said Nowak. “I’m always confident that common sense will prevail. We can regulate ourselves.”
Nowak would like to see liveaboards negotiate a lease directly with DNR, for a reasonable fee, and regulate themselves within their community.
Stoughton and fellow liveaboard Rich Seubert are making contingency plans. Stoughton traded one of his sailboats for a powerboat to tow his belongings away and Seubert said he is planning to move ashore.
Both Seubert and Stoughton have options, but they are concerned for residents who can’t support themselves on land or outside of the harbor.
“We’re not the type to fight or cause trouble, which is part of the problem because no one is prepared to be aggressive about this,” said Seubert. “But in reality, how do you fight DNR?”
Bridget Moran, the deputy supervisor for DNR, said the agency will act as quickly as possible.
The process begins with a letter of warning. Once the letter is sent, occupied vessels still in the harbor will receive a posted notice on their boat giving owners 30 days to vacate the harbor. On day 31, a daily fee notice is posted for unauthorized use and occupancy. If the boat remains in the harbor, DNR will bill for the initial 30 days and move towards eviction through the court system.
The process is similar to the way a landlord/tenant agreement is handled, and DNR will utilize state and local law enforcement, according to Moran.
For those who’ve spent months, even years working to save the liveaboard community, the reality of the situation is devastating.
“I’m afraid people really don’t understand the value of the liveaboard community and why they are committed to their way of life,” said Councilor Hilary Franz. “An attitude was cast based on the appearance of the boats instead of taking the time to get to know the people.”
Franz voted against the last-minute effort to create the open-water marina because the options presented were too expensive for both liveaboards and the city to maintain. She said the city had an unworkable set of regulations to work within, making it impossible to find a feasible solution.
“The goal was always to save the community, and the city was always negotiating in good faith to find that solution,” said Councilor Kirsten Hytopolous.
“If DNR can fix the existing regulations to provide a framework to make a marina possible then we are on board and ready to talk,” said Franz. “I spent 15 to 20 hours on this a week. It was like a part-time job for me. I want to make this work. But we need more time.”
Moran said the time has come and gone for decisions to be made.
Liveaboards are still hoping for some understanding from DNR, but if not, Stoughton said he plans to enjoy every day like it’s his last.