Not all homes that float are floating homes. Or barges. Or boats.

Home » Not all homes that float are floating homes. Or barges. Or boats.

Once in a while I come to think that a particular subject is the most complicated of the various issues that come before the Council. Land use is complicated, but it’s nothing compared to taxi regulations. And taxis are nothing compared to the towing industry. And just when you think there’s nothing more complicated than the towing industry, along come “residences in or on the water.”

How’s that for a complicated name. Why so complicated? Because not all the structures you see on Lake Union, on the Ship Canal or in Portage Bay fit neatly into a design or function based definition. Some are houseboats, always have been houseboats and always will be houseboats (though we won’t see more houseboat communities springing up due to state law). Some structures that look like floating homes call themselves vessels. And some structures that look almost exactly like the legal barge next door aren’t barges. And some structures that look like boats? Well, they might actually be boats.

Over the past half dozen years the City of Seattle along with cities all over the state has worked at updating a document called the Shoreline Master Program.  Since the early 1970s we, as a state, decided we wanted to be more intentional about how we manage shorelines. The idea is that there is a limited amount of shoreline, great desire to be ecologically better in how we live and work near the water, and some “uses” that are more water-dependent than others. So, a hierarchy of allowed users of our shorelines has come into being. Boat building? Very water-dependent. Boat sales? Less so. Car sales? Not at all.

Today, if all goes according to plan, Council will vote to forward the updated SMP for formal review by the State Department of Ecology. DOE has to approve the updated SMP or send us back to the drawing board. The updated SMP contains many changes to what you can do in the shoreline and how close you can do it to the water, and at what “cost” in terms of mitigation. Most of the enormous document deals with what we might consider the painful details of commercial zoning and use controls, as well as with the various forms of over- and on-water living. These new rules were worked out over the course of several years, many public meetings and multiple SMP drafts.

And even after we vote today, we have more work to do over the next several months.

Left without clear answers are a group of on-the-water-residents who don’t neatly fit into a category, but are part of the fabric of our water-resident community. Some in this group live on structures that look like old vessels adapted into homes. Some live on structures that look like house barges to me, though that’s of little solace since the State put an end to new house barges back in the early 90’s. Some live in what look to me to be large houses on float platforms, despite rules against new floating homes. They may be in violation of the current code, but that would be up to a judge to decide.  It’s important to note that the proposed changes to the Shoreline Master Program would not apply retroactively to the on-the-water residents that are now legally moored in Seattle.

Should these other people in the gray zone be considered legal? Illegal? Non-conforming? Can we find a local solution that meets our desire to treat the lakes, canals and bays with respect? At issue for most is certainty for their future. I’ve heard from people who have invested in a home like anyone else fully believing they were investing in a legal home. I’ve heard from people scared for their investment, who argue they’ve done nothing wrong except buy an unconventional home in an unconventional place and live a quintessential Seattle existence.   

Because we’re finished with everything else in the SMP, I anticipate the Full Council today will approve sending the SMP to DOE for review. Many people feel left out of those meetings, that they either didn’t know about the meetings or their ideas were ignored. Some would like us to hold the vote on the SMP until we solve the problem of the floating question marks. Holding onto the whole SMP longer makes no sense given that we’re past deadline already and the review will take months at DOE. Over the next three months, we will work with these residents, marina representatives, lake advocates, Department of Planning and Development staff, lawyers (of course) and others to attack the remaining issue of these floating question marks with the goal of either an amendment to the SMP that we send to DOE later or an entirely local solution.

That’s my commitment to the floating question marks.