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Bainbridge liveaboards facing ‘end of days’

Gale Williams conducts a daily living cycle on his houseboat that is moored in the middle of Eagle Harbor. Williams has been on boats most of his life and is a full-time liveaboard. He also keeps a small floatilla of boats tied on for sailing, commuting to shore and other projects.  - Brad Camp
Gale Williams conducts a daily living cycle on his houseboat that is moored in the middle of Eagle Harbor. Williams has been on boats most of his life and is a full-time liveaboard. He also keeps a small floatilla of boats tied on for sailing, commuting to shore and other projects.
— image credit: Brad Camp

More than a decade ago, island resident Craig Spencer had to choose between his home and his art.

The Southern California native, who moved to Bainbridge in 1987, rented a studio for his paintings and had a home on the island. But the bills for the two locations became overwhelming and Spencer was forced to choose.

He kept his studio – filled with paintings influenced by symbolism and Buddhist teachings – and moved aboard his boat, in 1997.

Spencer gets by on very little money.

He does yard work to cover his $200 monthly studio rent and trades paintings for dental work and other services.

Without the ability to live rent free on the water, Spencer wouldn’t be able to continue his starving artist lifestyle.

“If I didn’t have my boat, I would probably have to leave the island and I’d lose my studio,” he said.

Spencer, and an estimated 15 other liveaboard residents, are competing for four spots in the city’s new open-water marina, which was created by a council ordinance passed in October amid much debate and emotion.

Some liveaboard residents, like Gale Williams, have the ability to relocate if staying in the harbor isn’t possible.

“If things start to become unreasonable, which most of it has, I can just pick up and leave.”

Williams, who has been on boats all his life in one form or another, has property in Oregon. But many residents don’t have that luxury.

“There’s a difference between the people who want to live out here and those that have to,” said Richard Seubert, a liveaboard resident from Texas who has spent the last eight years in Eagle Harbor.

The city is still negotiating terms of the lease with the state Department of Natural Resources, but if the open-water marina is implemented as planned, the liveaboard community and its 100 years of history on Bainbridge would be endangered.

“It’s pretty much people turning their backs on the traditions that this island has always centered around,” Spencer said.

DNR forced the council’s hand on the adoption of an open-water marina by threatening to cite boats that were in violation of state law for mooring off shore in a zone without an established open-water moorage.

Then, DNR notified the city it would have to pay full lease rates on liveaboards.

When compiling the data for the three marina options, the city worked under the assumption that it would only pay for one-third of the swinging area covered by rented boats. The council found this out only several days before the meeting and decided to go with the cheapest of the three options.

The change in fees added $13,000 to the minimal option, $32,000 to the intermediate option and $35,000 for the most expensive alternative.

The agreed-upon option will cost $10,000 for infrastructure with an additional $21,507 in lease fees to the DNR. The infrastructure cost comes in the form of new buoys for residential vessels.

The lease rate for those remaining four vessels will be 22 cents per square foot, and the entire encumbered area. For example, the monthly rent for a 35-foot boat will be approximately $365; and another $21 per month added to a 45-foot vessel.

Council mayor Chris Snow, who voted in favor of adopting the marina, said he voted for it because of indications he received that liveaboard residents would not pay. Somebody had to pay the DNR, and if it wasn’t the liveaboards, the city would have to do it. The smallest option represented the lowest risk, he said.

Liveaboard residents that don’t move into the open-water marina will have to vie for spots in one of Eagle Harbor’s five land-based marinas, city Harbormaster Tami Allen said.

But a group of liveaboards has been working to create a new state law that would recognize historic liveaboard communities, with a goal of preserving their traditions.

Their plan

As the council came closer to passing the open-water marina, members of the liveaboard community formed Boaters and Mariners of Bainbridge Island (BAMBI). The group has held regular meetings on how to maintain the liveaboard community.

The open-water marina passed by the council provides space for 12 transient vessels and four liveaboards.

Seubert, who has worked as a developer and a landlord, said BAMBI is still crafting its plan.

It now calls for an allowance of 25 liveaboard residents, who would be allowed to rent their own buoys from the state with an approximate annual cost of $150 each.

Spencer said it’s only fair for liveaboard residents to pay some form of rent.

“I would be willing to pay a couple hundred bucks a month if there was something offered with it,” he said.

Liveaboard residents would then commit to a lease contract, which would make them responsible for maintaining boats and buoys, limiting noise levels, and disposing waste in an environmentally conscious manner.

But the state quickly denied the plan.

DNR cited WAC 332-30-148, which says residential vessels cannot moor at facilities connected to the shoreline, unless an open-water moorage leased to a local government agency is present.

A new law would be required for liveaboards to rent buoys directly from the state.

Seubert and other liveaboard members have met with several city councilors about the plan and are currently looking for a state representative to support their cause.

They have gathered more than 300 signatures from community members in an effort to show support for the plan, but Seubert acknowledged that it will be impossible for BAMBI to succeed without political backing.

“We have to have city support before the state will listen to a new law,” Seubert said.

Councilor Hilary Franz, who was a member of the Land Use Committee as this ordinance was making its way through, has paid close attention to the liveaboard cause. Franz voted against the marina because she believed it deviated from the city’s mandate to preserve the liveaboard community.

“Four residents doesn’t represent a community, especially when it means eviction,” she said.

Seubert and Spencer contend that it would be unfair for the residents to be charged in excess of $300 monthly to stay because that fee only provides them a space to park their boat. It lacks any amenities.

Seubert said the BAMBI plan would give Bainbridge something it severely lacks: affordable housing.

A close but misunderstood community

Despite its presence on Bainbridge Island for the last century, the liveaboard community remains mysterious.

“The thing I like about this community the most is the thing that’s killing it,” Seubert said. “All my neighbors just want to live their lives.”

Liveaboard residents have carved out lives of independence on the water. A percentage of them live on much less money than the DNR lease would charge them. And though their existence on Bainbridge is threatened, many are reluctant to involve themselves in the process.

Williams said he attended several meetings concerning the marina, but after observing the process he became frustrated with the deliberations and stopped paying attention.

His favorite part of the lifestyle is the ability to get away.

“I can hide out here, turn off my phone and go read a book,” he said.

And though many liveaboards enjoy their privacy, they look out for each other through a kind of aquatic neighborhood watch.

For example, last week when one of the boats began drifting, several residents banded together to catch the boat and secure it.

Also this week, a resident’s boat began sinking and another pulled it to shore.

Seubert said not everyone on the water is as honorable as some, but he feels safe on the water.

“It’s the best neighborhood I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “I never lock anything up. Yes, I’ve had a few things stolen, but when I’m anchored out there everyone looks after me, and I look after them.”

Seubert said the communal bond comes from a shared experience – residents dealing with the same problems.

“You row over to see your neighbor,” he said. “You see each other downtown and you know you had to row into town. You’re bound by the elements. The common thread out here is we all live outdoors.”

Ullin said about 10 times a year winds seriously rattle the boats and the water. And while it is difficult to deal with, Seubert said, in time people get used to it. Eagle Harbor is only one of two places protected against hurricane force winds in the state. If liveaboard residents were to moor elsewhere, they would face greater exposure to the elements.

But the community has its problems as well.

A gaze across Eagle Harbor shows a number of run down, abandoned boats. Allen said boats often get towed in, left and never maintained. Those boats are more than just an eye-sore. They take time and money to remove.

“I don’t like cleaning up other people’s messes,” Allen said.

Residents who leave these boats in the harbor have given the liveaboard community a poor perception among some members of the public. Seubert said the community hasn’t been perfect and should be subject to some criticism.

“We’ve earned some of those black eyes,” he said.

Spencer, whose boat resides in the western part of the harbor, said he understands how property owners could be upset by some of the noise made by liveaboards.

“It’s the generator noise that I find really annoying, and I think people on shore really do too,” he said. “I think that’s part of the reason they want to see us go. It certainly would drive me crazy all the time.”

Seubert blamed a few bad apples, as does Allen, who spends her days looking after the harbor.

“Liveaboards get a bad name for a lot of things they didn’t do,” she said.

How we got here

The subject of an open-water marina and regulation of the liveaboard community has been a hot topic for over a decade. It began in 1999, when the council directed the Harbor Commission to establish an open-water anchoring and mooring area in Eagle Harbor for transient and liveaboard vessels.

Three years later, the DNR enacted a new rule to allow residential uses on state-owned lands. This residential-use rule directed the city to identify an open-water moorage area in its Shoreline Master Program before Nov. 1, 2007.

In 2006, the council accepted an anchoring and mooring plan for Eagle Harbor, which fell within the same boundaries the recently passed open-water marina does.

That plan called for 20 reserved spots for liveaboard residents.

The initial vision changed significantly between the beginning of discussion and when the council adopted the final product. Allen said two things happened that caused the city to select the option it chose.

The size of the marina was reduced, cutting the number of boats that could fit by 75 percent, and the increased DNR lease rate reduced the scale of moorage the city could afford.

Seubert said BAMBI’s plan would come at almost no cost to the city. He believes the city and state are at a crossroads and could make or break the legacy of the liveaboard community.

“If this doesn’t come together, it’s the end of days for the oldest neighborhood on Bainbridge Island.”

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