State evictions stun West Bay, Martin Marina houseboat owners

DNR says houseboats aren’t vessels and must leave harbor areas by Nov. 28

Contributing writerOctober 16, 2013 

Sharing her 30-by-12-foot houseboat with Ms. Diva, her cocker spaniel companion and shipmate, Ginny Stern faces eviction from West Bay Marina in Olympia due to a law enforced by the Department of Natural Resources saying residents can live aboard marine vessels but not houseboats. She and other houseboat owners are challenging it and gaining help from several local government officials.

STEVE BLOOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Thanksgiving Day, Ginny Stern and her dog, Ms. Diva, face eviction from their home.

Stern has lived on a houseboat in West Bay Marina for 14 years. However, the Department of Natural Resources has sent letters to two marinas in Olympia, giving them 60 days to comply with regulations for “floating homes” on public waters.

West Bay Marina and Martin Marina are forced to evict a handful of “live-aboard” residents by Nov. 28 because their houseboats don’t qualify as vessels and therefore are not permitted in harbor areas.

When the eviction takes effect, Stern and nine other houseboat owners at West Bay Marina must either find another marina or dry dock.

“There’s no place to take my boat, even if I wanted to be somewhere else,” said Stern, who works for the Department of Health and needs to stay within commuting distance. “I’ll lose the value of my boat and I won’t have a place to live.”

In response, Stern helped start the Olympia Liveaboard Association, which first met Oct. 6. The association has hired an attorney who will file an injunction this week against the DNR.

Stern said a simple tweak in the DNR’s regulations can fix the situation, because boats and vessels are managed under a different set of rules than houseboats.

“We’re a neighborhood,” Stern said of the marina residents. She noted that the bank gave her a boat loan, not a mortgage.

The issue surfaced this fall when the marinas attempted to renew their leases with the state. Neil Falkenburg, general manager of West Bay Marina, said his 10 houseboat owners are good tenants who provide a stable year-round moorage base. However, with the state as his landlord, Falkenburg said he must abide by his landlord’s rules.

“I wouldn’t have them if they were bad for business,” he said of the live-aboard tenants. “It’s up to them to convince the state that the law the Department of Natural Resources is using to challenge my lease is incorrect.”

Washington Administrative Code states floating houses are not allowed in harbor areas. The WAC defines floating houses as residences that are not designed for transportation or navigation, as opposed to vessels, which meet the above criteria. Therefore, people who live on boats can stay in the marinas, according to the DNR.

The rule applies to state-owned aquatic lands and does not affect private marinas.

“We’re sympathetic to people’s situations,” said DNR spokesman Peter Lavallee, adding that the department has only contacted the two Olympia marinas so far. “We expect marina owners to enforce the law.”

A number of private marinas, such as Zittel’s Marina in Olympia, operate on land not managed by DNR. Ports are also under their own port authorities, Lavallee said.

State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, said a delegation including fellow District 22 Rep. Sam Hunt and an aide from state Sen. Karen Fraser’s office are meeting with the DNR on Wednesday to discuss the evictions. Reykdal said the live-aboard residents need more leeway, and that more time is needed to figure out a legislative solution.

“It’s a little troubling that it’s so acute and so fast for these owners,” Reykdal said.

The delegation plans to press the DNR for an extension of 180 days or up to a year, Reykdal said. The eviction time of 60 days only adds anxiety to the situation while threatening to leave residents homeless, he said.

Mike Auderer is one of four tenants who face eviction at Martin Marina. Auderer has lived in his custom-built home on the marina for two years. Nicknamed “Sweet Pea,” the eco-friendly home was featured in South Sound magazine, and The Travel Channel recently taped a segment for the show “Extreme Houseboats.”

With the impending eviction, Auderer is preparing to dry dock the 13- by 37-foot home and find another place to live. Auderer said 60 days is not enough time for an eviction notice.

“It’s not like we’re just freeloaders,” said Auderer, a lifelong Olympia resident who owns Olympia Construction. “How does my houseboat affect commerce and navigation? … The only thing that navigates past me is kayaks.”

M.G. Burgher & Associations, which has owned Martin Marina since 1982, has hired an attorney to negotiate with the DNR to let the houseboats stay. Marina manager Roger Burgher said a fifth tenant’s floating house will be reviewed by a DNR boat surveyor to determine whether it qualifies for the eviction.

“Our hands are tied,” Burgher said of the DNR’s rules. “They are threatening to pull our lease and that means we are out of business if that happens.”

Burgher said the floating-house owners have been good tenants for several years and bring a different look to the marina. His preference would be for them to stay.

“They have a pretty good-sized investment,” he said. “They haven’t hurt anybody.”

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