BREAKING NEWS: Mayor McGinn to Work With Houseboat Owners
After 3 long years of negotiations, testimonies, extensive letter writing campaigns, and numerous meetings, houseboat owners may be able to breath a sigh of relief. Mayor Mike McGinn has indicated he will work with Houseboat owners to reach an equitable solution to the question: “Do houseboat-vessels meet the criteria of being designed and used for navigation with a means of self propulsion and steering?”
Lake Union Liveaboard Association (LULA) has worked diligently to protect the rights and property of the approximately 113 houseboat-vessels currently in Seattle waters. Since 2009, when Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) began working on the new Seattle Shoreline Master Plan, houseboat owners lived in fear of losing their homes through DPD’s oppressive interpretations of 20 year old regulations. These regulations stipulated that to live aboard a vessel in Seattle waters, the vessel must be “designed and used for navigation” and must “have a means of self-propulsion and steering .” It has been LULA’s position that houseboat vessels meet this criteria and therefore are legal while DPD has contended (via arbitrary and unjustified interpretations) that there are approximately 150 illegal houseboats in Seattle waters based on their interpretation of this rule. The result of these allegations has meant a decrease in value of Houseboats, the loss of financing, and general insecurity for houseboat-vessel owners and buyers.
Not An Idle Threat
During the development of the Shoreline Master Plan, DPD issued 5 Notices of Violation (NOVs) regarding 5 houseboats and 1 marina operator. Nearly identical in substance and issued at the same time, these NOVs asserted that the vessels in question failed to meet the “designed and used for navigation” criteria of SMC § 23.60.942. The NOVs were based — in part — on the unpublished and now infamous DPD “vessel checklist” which lists a number of random design criteria that purportedly establish whether or not a vessel is actually a vessel. The recipients of the NOVs requested a Director’s Review of the NOVs and submitted extensive documentation (including marine surveys prepared by a naval architect) of the design and use of each vessel in satisfaction of the SMC § 23.60.942 criteria. DPD considered these materials for nearly six months before issuing orders upholding the NOVs and declaring each of the vessels in question to be unlawfully situated in the City of Seattle.
The recipients of the NOVs promptly initiated a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, alleging that the NOVs (a) were clearly erroneous as a matter of law, (b) incorrectly applied material facts, (c) sought to enforce an arbitrary and capricious standard in violation of the recipients’ substantive due process rights, (d) violated the recipients’ right to equal protection of the laws, and (e) were preempted by federal law (namely, the federal navigable servitude and the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, 46 U.S.C. § 4306, et seq.). The City filed a motion to dismiss the recipients’ claims, but in an order issued a few weeks before DPD issued the most recent draft director’s rule, the King County Superior Court denied that motion, instead ruling that the recipients had a valid basis to bring their claims under Washington’s Land Use Petition Act. That litigation is still ongoing and the case is set for trial in April of 2014.
A Bit of History
With an initial population in 1990 of about 30 houseboat vessels, the number has grown to approximately 115 houseboat vessels in 23 years (based on an analysis performed by LULA). Representing a growth rate of less than 4 houseboats per year, houseboats have not been a significant consumer of marine slips (there are about 10,000 marine slips in Seattle waters) yet they are a staple for local marinas, providing steady income and additional security. Houseboat owners paid sales tax on their properties at time of purchase (currently 9.5%) and they pay annual excise and registration fees based on the value of their vessel. In addition, they pay taxes indirectly through rental fees, property taxes on the marina property. A frequent misconception is that Houseboats dump black water into our waters. Not only is this not true, Houseboats are designed such that they cannot dump their black water and must use a pumpout service, while many yachts, trawlers, and sailboats are designed so they can discharge black water with the push of a button.
Houseboat vessels are an historic and iconic part of Seattle and have been a draw for tourism and an economic benefit to the neighborhoods surrounding Lake Union and the Ship Canal. Houseboat owners are frequently first responders to emergencies in Marinas and can be credited with saving life and property numerous times. Additionally, houseboat vessels have a very small carbon footprint and are very environmentally friendly.
The Mayor’s Commitment
Mayor McGinn met with LULA representatives and indicated that we are near a solution that will accommodate existing houseboat vessels and he has committed to working LULA to achieve a reasonable result. Negotiations are underway with DPD to create a DPD Director’s Rule that is rational and reasonable and which avoids the arbitrary and subjective conditions found in previous iterations of DPD’s interpretation of “designed and used for navigation (having a means of self-propulsion and steering).” The Director’s Rule is being modified to more closely match the recommendations of Lake Union Liveaboard Association which has strong support by many people, business owners, and professional marine groups, including the Lake Union Association of businesses, the National Marine Trade Association, Shilshole Liveaboard Association.
A Petition to Protect Seattle’s Houseboats created by Lake Union Liveaboard Association received more than 650 signatures, and together with signed paper petitions amounted to over a thousand people showing their support for Seattle’s wonderful Houseboat community.
For more information and the latest news on LULA’s efforts to protect houseboat-vessels (and other live-aboards), please visit our websites: