Mooring plan stirs liveaboards' passions

Liveaboards swarmed ashore Tuesday night to pack City Hall and declare their opposition to proposed fees and regulations affecting their free, wayfaring lifestyle.

“Freedom is a big issue for us,” said Eagle Harbor liveaboard Mike Martin. “We have a sense of purpose: It’s to be free and outside the current system. You need to understand us as people. That’s how it works out there.”

Martin and other open-water dwellers railed against the Bainbridge Island Harbor Commission’s proposed Eagle Harbor Anchoring and Mooring Plan, which would confine liveaboards and transient vessels to a middle harbor zone between the outer harbor and Stetson Point.

The plan does not affect anchoring and mooring on public bedlands, private tidelands or private property where the owner has expressed permission.

Crafted with the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington State Ferries, the Department of Natural Resources and other government agencies, the proposed plan would create an “open-water marina” to manage liveaboards on state waters that have previously been largely unregulated.

The plan is aimed at preserving Eagle Harbor’s liveaboard community within the confines of state law, according to Tami Allen, harbormaster.

“We’re the first in Washington to talk about an open-water marina,” she said. “We’re breaking new ground.”

Last year, the state reversed course on efforts to outlaw liveaboards on state-owned aquatic lands, but stipulated new regulations would be required.

“Our purpose was to protect (liveaboards),” said DNR land manager Courtney Wasson.

But many of the estimated 20 permanent Eagle Harbor liveaboards feel the new regulations will erase their way of life.

“It saddens me,” said Karl Dight. “It will drive a lot of people from our community.”

Dave Ullin, a tugboat owner and Bainbridge liveaboard for over 20 years, said the estimated $190 in monthly moorage fees would deal a crippling blow to his inexpensive, self-sufficient lifestyle.

Ullin regularly volunteers his maritime skills to the commission and other boaters, but a higher-cost lifestyle would redirect his skills and time toward more lucrative pursuits, he said.

The floating residents of Eagle Harbor’s state-owned waters currently pay no fees while liveaboards at the Winslow Wharf Marina pay up to $325 a month, according to Allen.

Ullin said the state waters have always been free and should stay that way.

“Some people are assuming that the DNR has to charge rent,” he said. “But what seems off the screen for most people is that money originates from natural resources and the flow of money is consuming the earth. I encourage the DNR to participate in the solution by not marketing natural resources.”

Dana Quitslund, Health, Housing and Human Services Council president, said the liveaboard community provides part of the island’s low-cost housing stock. He said the plan could “wipe out the harbor as affordable housing.”

Quitslund was particularly concerned with wording in the plan that states the City Council will set fees “such that the cost of managing Eagle Harbor will not burden property taxpayers.”

Quitslund said this will “unfairly place a large burden on residents and other regular users of the harbor, leaving any number of people who use and enjoy the harbor with no cost.”

Too small?

Costs aren’t the only limiting factor in the plan, Quitslund said. The portion reserved for long-term anchorage and liveaboard use is far too small to accommodate all the vessels.

Many liveaboards agree their proposed reservation is too confining.

“The proposal to jam the boats into a small area is ludicrous and makes no common sense,” said Doug Hatfield, a liveaboard of about three years.

Liveaboard Ryan Landworth urged the commission to extend the boundaries as far as possible, predicting many boats would anchor outside the area regardless of designation.

“There’s no way all the boats will fit in the designated area,” he said. “No matter what, the transient boats will anchor where they want to anchor.”

While turnout at the commission meeting overwhelmingly opposed the plan, some shoreline and inland residents expressed support for the proposed regulations. Gary Tripp advocated a plan to monitor sewage produced on liveaboard vessels.

“How do we know they’re pumping out?” he asked. “If you had a house with no septic system they’d be shut down in a minute.”

Most liveaboards either pump waste out or dump it in a holding tank on shore, Allen said. The commission received only one complaint about sewage in the harbor this year, she said.

Some harbor residents with property overlooking the water have called the liveaboard vessels eyesores and complained of raucous parties.

“And some can barely float,” said Claudette Boudreaux, after expressing concern about environmental damage.

Many liveaboards said their lifestyle, which bends to winds and tides, is closer to the natural world and fosters environmental concern.

“Ecologically, liveaboards are far more sensible than those who live life in a box on the hill,” Richard Oakes said. “We take care of the water – it’s our front door.”

Ullin said he uses substantially less water and energy than most land dwellers.

“I have to haul my water,” he said. “I like that. It makes me appreciate it more. Maybe the liveaboards should be the ones lobbying the government to impose lifestyle regulations on ‘liveashores.’”

Other inland residents have expressed concerns that liveaboard vessel anchors scour the harbor bottom, disturbing microorganisms and plant life.

The proposed plan would shift liveaboards from anchoring to mooring, which links boats to buoys and lines that are drilled into the harbor bed.

Some liveaboards defy the proposed plan on principle.

“The city is staking a claim on public trust land,” Ullin said. “They don’t belong.”

Ullin has pledged not to sign a mooring plan, which would be required under the proposal.

“I guess I’ll be an outlaw,” he said.

Said Martin, “I will not compromise on the most important thing in the world to me. I’m open to discussion, but I feel we’re being forced into a corner once again.”

Some liveabroads have said they hope to see the issue go to the supreme court, citing the Public Trust Doctrine’s reference to waterways as a “common highway” that are “forever free.”

But Allen views the city’s plan for an open water marina as the best option for the liveaboard community.

“For me, it’s a compromise and makes them legal,” she said.

Allen said liveaboards that don’t sign on to the open-water marina will have no other option but to “start cruising.”

They will only be allowed a 90-day stay in Eagle Harbor per year, requiring them to anchor elsewhere after their term expires.

“And that doesn’t preserve community,” she said.

Liveaboard supporter Karen Kushner hopes the city will find a way to preserve what she considers a vital part of island history and community.

“There is strength in diversity, not homogeneity,” Kushner said. “We, as a community, find ways to save historical museums in old school houses. We save farmland because it’s part of our history. We found a way to save the mobile home park because it’s part of who we are.

“We’re saving a part of the history of the internment, but in the same harbor we’re destroying part of our living history.”

Allen and the commission will review all the public comments they’ve received and discuss possible changes to the plan at a public meeting on Dec. 7.

The commission will then submit a final draft to the City Council.

The council will host a public hearing on the plan and is expected to vote on final passage early next year.

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