Heritage, Homes & House Boats In Peril

by Kirby Lindsay, posted 21 August 2013


Kevin & Linda Bagley stand at the bow of their 'squarish, raked hull' stern paddle wheeler 'The KevLin'. Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

Kevin and Linda Bagley have been reassured, in person, that they have nothing to worry about.  Their home is not endangered – and they will not have to find a new place to live.  They are not reassured.

As founders, in 2009, of the Lake Union Liveaboard Association (LULA,) they’ve heard from friends, neighbors and clients.  They’ve heard from other owners who went to the City of Seattle Department of Planning & Development (DPD) over the years to ask for permits, permissions or clarifications about their ownership, and were told that the Department doesn’t regulate boats.  “Now they [DPD representatives] are saying, ‘you should have known,’ and ‘we didn’t mean it.’” Kevin Bagley reported, “one [owner] has a letter of approval, but now has gotten a letter of violation.  You can live with regulations if you know what they are, but [the City] is trying to create retroactive rules.  We will fight that one.”

The Bagleys live in a marina on Lake Union along North Northlake Way, on a 72’ dual stern paddle wheeler.  Some Fremonsters may have seen the ‘KevLin’ there, or out cruising on the water since paddle wheelers need exercise to stay functional.

‘Look Out For Each Other’

The Bagleys bought the boat as a weekend retreat.  After six months, they downsized from their 4,000 sq. ft. house and its surround acre of land in Bothell to the ‘KevLin’.  Seven years later, they show off their well-cared for house boat with obvious pride, and they talk with profound enthusiasm about the changes living on the water has brought to their lives.

Seen cruising through the Lake Washington Ship Canal into Lake Union, is this a house boat? A house barge? Does it matter? Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

The couple run the Special Agents Realty office near Waterway 17, and after work they often walk home then jump in their little runabout motor boat to grab a bite at Ivar’s Salmon House, visit friends, or simply explore their ‘neighborhood’ of Lake Union.  They find the neighbors here to be more talkative and friendly than in residential neighborhoods.  “Here they will say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a bottle of wine…,’” Kevin observed.  “We have lots of people over,” Linda agreed, and they spend more time outside, exploring and visiting, than they ever did before taking to the water.

Also, “we’re the first responders for theft, fire, drownings…,” Linda Bagley explained about liveaboards.  When accidents occur, marina residents will literally jump in to make a report or save a life, or property.  “We look out for each other,” Kevin Bagley observed.

Like now.  The Bagleys have responded, and rallied the troops, to fight for their right to live on the water – and for the rights of clients they’ve helped to realize a dream to own one of Seattle’s iconic house boats.

Clarification Makes Matters Murkier

Since 2007, the City of Seattle DPD has redrafted its Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) – and its policy regarding ‘On Water Residence’ – and Kevin Bagley has witnessed, “an outright dislike of houseboat vessels,” he wrote by e-mail.  He’s heard those who live on their vessels described by City representatives as ‘scofflaws’ who are ‘evading,’ ‘circumventing,’ and ‘going around’ regulations.  Linda has heard house boats described as ‘shanties.’

Vessels can take all shapes and sizes, including this one scrupulously displaying all of its registration tags on the edge of the port deck. Photo provided by Kevin Bagley

Some may be, but the City hasn’t proposed standards for up-keep.  Instead, they’ve challenged their own regulations – set in 1990 – that described Floating Homes and House Barges, but failed to mention house boats.  The existing SMP (until Washington State Department of Ecology accepts, possibly this fall, the current draft,) gave only two rules governing house boats (although neither uses this term.)  Number 23.60.090 F prohibits locating non-water-dependent uses over water which do not have a means of self-propulsion or steering equipment.  Number 23.60.942 defines ‘vessel’ as craft designed and used for navigation that do not interfere with the normal public use of the water.  A DPD Memo (#229) clarified that towing, and being able to be towed, satisfies the ‘designed and used for navigation’ requirement.

The Bagleys, the LULA and owners of house boats that received notices of violation have asked for more clarification – and ways, after so many years, they now violate those same rules.  The DPD has proposed a voluntary registration system that would include certification by naval architects, a specific cruising insurance, minimum horsepower per foot, freeboard (distance from water to deck) requirements, and having a motor attached at all times (which would, simultaneously, increase chances of contamination of the lake water.)

Kevin Bagley in the engine room of 'The KevLin', getting the paddle wheel moving. Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

The DPD submitted this voluntary registration proposal after an effort to have naval architects develop an equation for sail area to length ratio failed (“All garbage,” Kevin declared it.)  The registration would also require house boats to cruise the waters.  The Bagleys do take the ‘KevLin’ out, but they resent the requirement as being illogical for some of their neighbors who have no reason to cruise.  If you equate vessel ownership with vehicular – since when are vehicle owners required to drive?  Also, the State of Washington does issue vehicle registration decals that require filing of the size of the vessel and the type of engine it has.  “On a car, you don’t have to define how large the engine is, or the size of the wheels,” Kevin Bagley observed.

A Shoreline Detriment, Or Benefit

In 1990, the City of Seattle put a moratorium on house barges – vessels designed primarily as residences and only navigable by towing.  Today, the City has accused some house boat owners – many of whom bought their vessels in the last twenty years – of owning outlawed house barges.  “I can tell you, when I go through a marina, which is a house barge and which isn’t,” Linda Bagley said, “but can Kevin and I agree when we walk through together?  No.”

House boats come in myriad variations with the only real consistency being that someone lives there.  Yet, people also live on pointy-tipped vessels (sail boats, motor boats, yachts, catamarans, etc.) and the City has exempted them from this discussion.  “They are saying you can live on the water in a pointy-shaped vessel,” Kevin observed, so he has designed a fake point that can be attached by a bra to the bow of rectangular boats, called ‘the Sea Cup.’  “The City is regulating style,” he said.

Some, not the Bagleys, have suggested the effort to remove house boats from Lake Union comes from envy of views like this one. Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

“The [Ride The] Duck doesn’t go out on the lake and tell people about the pointy-tipped boats,” Linda Bagley observed, “and Kenmore Air doesn’t talk about them,” in its in-flight magazine.  Recently, Linda took visiting actress Keira Knightley on a tour of house boats for sale, “and she loved them!”  House boats, and the ability to live on the lake, form a significant part of Seattle’s heritage and landscape.  Losing them seems more detrimental to Shoreline Management than a beneficial.

“One of the frustrating things for us,” Kevin Bagley observed, “if Linda and I were to move off our rectangular vessel and onto a pointy-tipped one – are we really going to consume less?  Pollute less?  Take up less space?”

The Bagleys have become willing listeners to house boat owners, occasionally hysterical with fear, who have all their equity tied up in a vessel they cannot sell as long as the City leaves open the possibility of banning them from the water.  For the few able to sell, it remains unlikely they could afford to buy a home in Wallingford or Fremont, even if they could find one.  “They lose their nest egg,” Linda observed, “and the City is going to lose a tax base.”

One of the house boats on Lake Union, and one that may be declared uninhabitable by the DPD. Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

The Bagleys did an informal census – over the 2012 Christmas holiday – of the house boats on Lake Union.  “We sell them,” Linda said, “we know how many there are.”  They counted 115 house boats, and 518 Floating Homes – which are also exempted from this discussion, so far.

‘The Point Of This?’

“There are more important issues,” Linda Bagley agreed.  She’d love to give her attention to helping the homeless, like the people who live in their cars on North Northlake.  But until the City of Seattle, and specifically City Councilmember Richard Conlin, sees reason the Bagleys will spend too much of their time doing what they can to protect the homes of their neighbors, and themselves.

“What is the point of this?” Kevin Bagley asked, after detailing his almost five years of fight.  “They don’t want boxy-shaped vessels on the lake,” he mused.  “The double standards are ridiculous.  The intent is obvious.  DPD wants to rid Seattle of houseboats,” he has written.

Is there value to Seattle in having only pointy-bowed vessels on Lake Union? Photo by K. Lindsay, Aug '13

The Bagleys hope others consider writing to the Seattle City Council, particularly Land Use Chairperson Conlin, to voice their opinions about the house boats moored on Seattle’s – and Fremont’s – shoreline.  Also, the Council needs to hear what voters think of retroactive regulation – of telling a homeowner that their house is now an illegal dwelling – before this becomes the norm for those living on land as well.

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©2013 Kirby Lindsay.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.



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