Losing Sleep in Seattle or The Plight of the Liveaboards

Home » Losing Sleep in Seattle or The Plight of the Liveaboards

Over the past month the City Council focused on legislation that updates our Shoreline Master Plan (SMP).   Updating the SMP is required by state law and must be consistent with the state Shoreline Management Act (SMA). 

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) began working to update our SMP in 2007.  As DPD’s work proceeded I heard from businesses and property owners who wanted me to know how the rules and regulations could impact their maritime businesses.  Other people contacted me because they were concerned that the SMP could affect their ability to live on their floating residences (note: I did not call them “floating homes” which are a different type of residence).

While DPD was drafting the updated plan, I toured incredibly interesting prosperous maritime businesses to gain a better understanding of their concerns and needs.  My tour of the twelve acre Lake Union Dry Dock site was particularly impressive because of the sheer scale of the operation and its remarkable history of boat building.

 This large shipbuilding and repair business has been in Seattle since 1919.  It is located on the south end of Lake Union where it employs hundreds of people in well-paying jobs.  You can learn more about Lake Union Dry Dock by going to its web site: http://www.ludd.com/.   I also toured a couple of floating residences in the Fremont neighborhood because their owners wanted me to see what their homes are like and to understand their concerns about the pending legislation. 

When DPD submitted its recommendations to the Council last summer there remained but one outstanding area of controversy.  The controversy was over the status of the floating residences which the owners call “liveaboards”.  

 While we don’t know the exact number, I have heard that there are between 113 and 130 liveaboards in Seattle. Some liveaboards may not be boats (vessels), or floating homes or “house barges”.  There are 480 floating homes and 34 house barges in Seattle.  All of those are permitted to be residences on the water by specific legislation passed decades ago.

The liveaboards arrived on our waters after 1990 when the last legislation allowing the house barges was passed.  The liveaboards were built in Seattle or towed to Seattle after 1990 and may not be allowed to be used as residences under the state Shoreline Management Act (SMA). Those who own the liveaboards are very concerned about their future and wanted the City Council to allow them through the SMA legislation to be lived in as vessels. 

The legislation before the Council did not propose to resolve the status of the liveaboards.  Some of the owners wanted the Council to delay passage of the updated SMP until the liveaboard status is resolved.  When the SMP came before the Council for a final vote Councilmembers delayed consideration for a week to consider how to address the liveaboard issue. 

The City’s process in updating the SMA has taken much longer than anticipated and the DOE in a letter dated January 10, 2013 to Councilmember Richard Conlin urged the City Council to “work to resolve questions related to existing floating residential structures (liveaboards) through a separate process independent of the SMP update”.  DOE also said that it anticipates that many of the structures do meet the definition of vessel and if amendments to the updated SMP are needed to resolve the liveaboard issue DOE will give prompt attention to the proposed amendments if they are consistent with the SMA. 

In reviewing the material and information submitted to the Council including comments and recommendations from liveaboard owners, the Council determined that the best path forward would be to develop a process for determining the future of the liveaboard residences.  The Council voted to pass the SMP on January 14 without further delay. 

I didn’t support delay because the city is way behind in meeting the deadline for completing the SMP update.  There are many water dependent property and business owners who will be affected by the SMP who need certainty about their rights and obligations and who wanted the code finalized so they may plan for their future. 

Councilmember Richard Conlin is taking the lead in developing the process to resolve the liveaboard issue.  He is creating a stakeholders group of people who know the issues including liveaboard residents.  The stakeholders group will be tasked with recommending a process to determine the status of each of the liveaboards. 

I am confident that those who live on the floating residences thought they were acting in good faith and were meeting the requirements of applicable laws and regulations when they built or moved into their liveaboards. I am also confident that the City will follow through and have an inclusive process to resolve the future of the liveaboards Seattle so that the owners can finally know the status of their homes and get a good night’s sleep in Seattle. 

Here are photos of various kinds of floating structures that people live in. Can you tell which is considered a vessel and which is not?  Which would be permitted to live in and which would not? 


If you are interested in learning more about the stakeholders group or about the SMO I encourage you to contact Councilmember Conlin at his office: richard.conlin@seattle.gov or go to his website: http://www.seattle.gov/council/Conlin/

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