Liveaboards vow defiance vs. city, state

Boat dwellers say harbor plan will extinguish their unique community.

When the tidal wave of the state hits, Eagle Harbor’s liveaboards say they won’t be asking the city for a lifeline.

“I hope with all my heart that you reject this plan,” liveaboard Mike Martin said, at a Wednesday workshop introducing the proposed Eagle Harbor Anchoring and Mooring Plan to the City Council. “It’s an insult to us, and will kill us as a community. It will destroy things you haven’t even begun to acknowledge.”

Martin and other liveaboards pledged defiance, as the city tries to meet new state mandates for the regulation of harbor dwellers.

He and other liveaboards maintain that their way of life consumes few resources and has a lighter impact on the environment than many land dwellers. Free from rent and largely powered by wind and sun, the liveaboard lifestyle also provides part of the island’s disappearing low-cost housing stock, according to housing advocates.

But with proposed monthly lease rates of $1,000 or more for a 30-foot vessel anchored in the harbor, many liveaboards say their community is teetering on extinction. They also object to a designated moorage area proposed in the plan, which would confine 20 liveaboard vessels and other unoccupied and transient boats to a 15-acre portion of the middle harbor.

The plan’s roots stretch back to the late-1990s, when the state Department of Natural Resources tried to ban all liveaboards, citing a law that discourages non-water dependent uses such as dwellings over water.

While the law made no mention of liveaboards, DNR maintained living in boats was an improper use of state-owned aquatic lands.

The DNR reversed its stance in 2001 when new leadership at the department concluded that living aboard is not prohibited. But concerns over safety, navigation, pollution and public access to the water led the DNR to confine liveaboards to regulated marinas.

Liveaboard vessels are barred from long-term use of state-owned waters except in instances when a local government leases the open water area and manages it like a marina. The DNR has given cities until 2007 to craft open-water marina provisions.

Bainbridge is the only city in the state to attempt such a plan. In Bellingham, liveaboards have already been ordered to move, while Friday Harbor and other maritime communities are watching Bainbridge as they consider similar measures.

Liveaboards’ opposition to the plan led a few councilors to question why the city was getting involved.

“Why do we have a dog in this fight?” Councilman Nezam Tooloee asked. “I don’t understand why the city government has a responsibility to do something in this arena.”

Some shoreline residents suggested that the council abandon the plan and put an end to liveaboard uses altogether.

Shannon Drive resident Mike Suraci recited a long list of infractions he blamed on liveaboards, including littering, public alcohol consumption, nudity, illegal parking, foul language, violation of dog leash laws and gun ownership.

Some liveaboards also hope the plan dies in council, so they can do battle with the state.

Martin and perhaps four other of the estimated 20 liveaboards have vowed to take the state to court, should DNR attempt to move them.

“Every liveaboard I’ve spoken with would rather deal with the state than the City of Bainbridge,” said Harbor Commissioner Paul Svornich. “Virtually every one of them has said they want this (plan) to go away.”

Liveaboard Ray Nowak said he opposes the plan because it imposes regulations crafted by a segment of the population ignorant of the liveaboard lifestyle.

“I’ve been on the water all my life,” Nowak said. “That’s my turf and you’re infringing upon it. I don’t like condos and traffic. That’s your thing. I don’t need you people telling me how to live out there.

“When I want to know how to grow green lawns and make BMW payments, I’ll come and ask you.”

But abandoning the new policies could mean Bainbridge loses its liveaboard community “like everywhere else in the state,” said Harbormaster Tami Allen.

She hopes to push forward with the plan while working with DNR to reduce monthly costs for liveaboards.

“None of (the liveaboards) are saying they want to leave or be evicted,” she said. “They still want to stay here and we still have to find out what they want. The plan is a really close compromise, in which everybody’s going to feel a change and not everybody is going to be completely happy with it.”

Councilman Jim Llewellyn, who was a member of the council when efforts to preserve the liveaboard community were initiated in the late 1990s, said the plan could be the liveaboards’ only option if their fight with the state is unsuccessful.

“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “Because we cherish the community’s cultural and economic diversity.

“We’re choosing a little more regulation and less freedom for them to stay here.”

The council will next discuss the plan on June 6 at City Hall.

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