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Eagle Harbor liveaboard community gets new lease on life

Community members and liveaboards gathered Wednesday at the city dock in Eagle Harbor for a liveaboard support rally. Inside the historic Wicca houseboat, attendees munched on cookies and hot cider while listening to stories and live music. A few hours later, council members voted to approve a lease that could potentially preserve the community from being evicted.  - Brad Camp/For the Review
Community members and liveaboards gathered Wednesday at the city dock in Eagle Harbor for a liveaboard support rally. Inside the historic Wicca houseboat, attendees munched on cookies and hot cider while listening to stories and live music. A few hours later, council members voted to approve a lease that could potentially preserve the community from being evicted.
— image credit: Brad Camp/For the Review

Oceana Williams left school early Wednesday to reunite with some old neighbors at a place she spent the first months of her life.

Williams, now 13, lived aboard Wicca, the 70-year-old houseboat that has become an icon of the liveaboard community in Eagle Harbor, until she was 19-months-old. She returned this week for her visit since she was a baby.

“When I tell people about the first place I’ve ever lived they are surprised,” she said. “It was important for me to be able to come here and support them because I lived here too.”

Williams and her mother, Susan Transeaux, were two of the many islanders who ventured out to the city dock to celebrate the liveaboard community they were once a part of.

At the council meeting later that evening, Eagle Harbor liveaboards were granted more reasons to celebrate after the City Council voted unanimously to approve a 12-year lease for an open-water moorage and anchorage area to preserve the historic community.

The vote is a symbolic victory for those who have fought for years to try and keep the community afloat, but the path to a permanent solution for everyone is still bumpy.

The lease will allow liveaboards to pay rent at monthly rates between $60 and $176 dollars a month, depending on a choice of linear or double point moorage.

The rent includes garbage, sewage, management and maintenance in a marina that can hold up to 16 residential vessels.

The city would incur one-time costs between $21,000 to $32,000 to build the infrastructure for the marina, depending on the number of buoys installed.

The state allocated $40,000 for the city to use for buoy installation, but there is question as to whether that money will be available due to the length of the permitting process. Members of the community have already pledged some $16,000 to help fund the creation of the marina.

The city’s harbormaster will be responsible for day-to-day management and no new staff position will be created.

Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer must sign the lease by Dec. 22 to comply with DNR’s agreement to stay the eviction process.

Through a series of communications in early December between DNR and the city, the state agency agreed to delay the eviction process if the city obtained a shoreline conditional use permit. If the city signs the lease, it has until June 15, 2011, to obtain a shoreline conditional-use permit.

Councilor Hilary Franz found a feasible alternative after looking over the regulations to try and find a way around the 25 percent residential requirement for open water marinas. Prior to Franz’s suggestion, the infrastructure for a marina was not financially feasible, according to the city.

There are still kinks to be worked out in the lease agreement.

One possible issue is the concern amongst liveaboards who would prefer the freedom of a buoy, but will be deterred by $176 a month. The approximate $60 per month for linear moorage is more affordable, but some liveaboards said it may create a ghetto by forcing static boats to be in close proximity.

There is also an issue over whether houseboats will be allowed. Vessels will also have to fall into compliance with state regulations, which the city will have to enforce. All of these issues must be tackled and considered as the marina moves forward, but Wednesday’s activities were significant steps, and reason enough to celebrate.

For liveaboards like Ray Novak, the current owner of Wicca, coming together Wednesday was symbolic, and ample fuel to find a resolution after so many years of uncertainty.

“Being back together on Wicca has particular significance because inside these walls are memories of happy times, family and the waves of people who have contributed to this community,” said Novak.

The liveaboard community has always been in flux, in part because of the nature of being at sea, but also because of its place within the larger community. Novak described the community as feeling as if a mallet is constantly hovering, waiting for the right moment to lower its force. The uncertainty, he said, proved to be too much for some, who have moved ashore or away from the harbor.

Wicca has been home to numerous families over the years, some who still live on the island, and others who have moved on.

Transeaux, who now lives ashore, was able to reconnect with old neighbors who hadn’t seen Williams since she was just a toddler.

“This is very emotional for me,” Transeaux said. “When I first moved aboard Wicca it was the first community that I’d ever felt a part of. Whether they liked you or not this community accepts you. They take care of you. I had never seen anything like that before.”

Some liveaboards were in tears as they looked at pictures, read the history and talked about the old days. Others expressed their anger or worry that their community continues to be the subject of laws and regulations that unnecessarily complicate a historic community that works towards a life of simplicity and freedom.

All were hopeful though, that years of disagreement and threats would be over, and a resolution that will be fair for the greater community might be on the horizon.

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