Revised rules remove liveaboard limit but restrict house barges

The revised regulations would no longer limit liveaboard slips to 25 percent at any marina, but would place new restrictions on house barges.

The city of Seattle has revised a set of proposed regulations that would limit liveaboard vessels and place new restrictions on marinas, but not all liveaboards are happy with the changes.

The city had previously proposed to define liveaboards as anyone spending more than four nights a week aboard their boat and to limit liveaboards to 25 percent of slips at any marina. The proposed regulations, part of a broader overhaul of the city’s Shoreline Master Program, were revised over the past few months in the wake of feedback from boaters and others, and a second draft was issued in October.

The revamped regulations define a liveaboard as a vessel used as a dwelling unit for more than 30 days in any 45-day period or more than 90 days in a year, the same definition used by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Gail Luhn, president of the Shilshole Liveaboard Association, said the association is cautiously optimistic about the new regulations, which are in a public comment period until Dec. 9 and must still be approved by city council before moving ahead.

“We’re very pleased,” she said. “But we’re tamping that down at the moment because we know this is just a draft. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

But while the revised regulations no longer limit the number of liveaboard vessels in the city, they place new restrictions on house barges, defined as “any vessel with or without means of self-propulsion and steering equipment or capability that is principally designed as a place of residence.”

The regulations would prohibit any new house barges in Seattle and allow only those that were in city waters before January of this year. Owners would be required to register their house barges with the city and any house barge taken out of Seattle waters for more than six months would lose its permit.

Permits could be transferred to a new owner if the house barge is sold, but not to a different house barge. Replacing an existing house barge would still be allowable, as would moving a house barge to a different marina in the city.

Kevin Bagley, head of the Lake Union Liveaboard Association, is not pleased about the changes. Bagley said liveaboards on houseboats, as he prefers to call them, are being unfairly singled out. He questions why the city would prohibit any new houseboats while not limiting the number of liveaboards on more traditional vessels such as sailboats and trawlers.

Kevin and Linda Bagley live aboard their 72-foot paddlewheeler on Lake Union.

“What’s the purpose of giving the green light to an unlimited number of liveaboard vessels so long as they’re shaped like recreational vessels and not shaped more like a box?” he said. “It’s a prejudice based on shape.”

Bagley also objects to the city classifying his 72-foot paddlewheeler, which he and wife Linda live on in Lake Union, as a house barge. His boat is registered with the U.S. Coast Guard as a vessel, he said.

“I’m not going to register my vessel as a house barge,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a house barge. So now the city has an enforcement issue. Are they going to start monitoring marinas?”

The proposed regulations also raise questions about what will happen to the four or five houseboats that Bagley said have moved onto Lake Union after the January 2011 cut-off date.

“That is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” he said.

Maggie Glowacki, senior land use planner for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the proposed regulations are needed under a state law requiring local governments to revise their Shoreline Master Programs. The three priorities for the program are ensuring preferred shoreline uses, providing public access and protecting the environment.

The prohibition on new house barges, Glowacki said, is in keeping with state law that prohibits new overwater residences and applies the same rules to floating homes and house barges. Liveaboard vessels are being treated differently than house barges under the city’s proposed new regulations because they are designed primarily for navigation, while house barges are intended as residences, Glowacki said.

“House barges are most similar to floating homes. They’re not most similar to recreational vessels,” she said. “If a recreational vessel is used as a liveaboard, it doesn’t mean that its previous owner has used it as a liveaboard or its next owner will.

“But generally, house barges, like floating homes, are constructed for residential use and we’re making that distinction. Basically, it comes down to the design.”

Similarly, Glowacki said, the proposed regulations would require house barges — but not recreational vessels — to contain their greywater instead of pumping it overboard, just as floating homes are required to do. The city will also be considering how to address the greywater produced by liveaboard vessels, she said.

As for the house barges that have moved into Seattle waters since January, Glowacki said those will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. She didn’t rule out the possibility that the city could allow new house barges up to the date the regulations take effect.

“This isn’t the final version (of the regulations),” she said. “We’ll be taking comments and be evaluating all the comments.”

Bagley believes the city is trying to eventually get rid of houseboats, which he said are part of the culture and character of Seattle.

“When people think of Seattle, they think of three things – the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, but also floating homes and houseboats. If you were to poll the public, they like them. When the duck boats go out on tour, they point out the houseboats. It’s a positive thing for the city of Seattle.”

Glowacki said the intent is not to get rid of house barges, but to comply with state laws and protect the city’s shoreline.

“We’re not proposing to remove existing house barges or floating homes, but to put limits on new ones per the priorities set by the state,” she said.

The proposed regulations are available on the city’s website. Written comments will be accepted until Dec. 9 and can be sent to Margaret Glowacki at or by mail to:

Margaret Glowacki
City of Seattle – DPD
700 Fifth Ave. Suite 2000
P.O. Box 34019
Seattle, WA 98124-4019

12 Responses to Revised rules remove liveaboard limit but restrict house barges

  1. Rob Davison November 13, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    The houseboats,barge homes and liveabords define Seattle to me. Our plan for the past ten years is to spend at least 50% of our time on our next boat (ours is too small) somewhere on the Salish Sea or possibly Lake Union.

    I can understand the gray water discharge thing and don’t have any issue with that. For a liveaboard it’s like dumping the bath water or wash water out the back door of a house on land to sit there in a puddle.

    What I don’t like is the shoreline management’s concept that non boaters and non house boaters need unlimited access to the waters of the lakes and the Salish Seas. We don’t have unlimited access to their condo or apartment buildings, gated waterfront communities or other land bound waterfront areas that restrict access including most of the beaches on most of the land around the sound. We have to go ashore at public areas just like any land bound citizen has to go to the water in “public” areas. But “they” believe that since they have chosen to live in a condo, apartment or private home away from the water that “they” should be allowed to walk any dock in Seattle with no gates blocking their passage and “they” should have access to the water other than through public places.
    Truth be known most of those people complaining about “liveaboards” wouldn’t know a liveaboard boat if they saw one except that most likely it would be the clean boat with lines adjusted and not having the look of being forgotten for months on end. I hope I didn’t run too long or double up on myself in this.

  2. Capt. John TAR November 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm #

    One of the great things proposed is that all vessels to include house barges will be required to sign agreements that the vessel owner will comply with DOE Best Management Practices (BMPs) additionaly, proof of pump out of black water will be required and all marinas with slips for vessels over 20 feet will be required to have a pumpout faclity.. So there will be no excuse for pumping blackwater overboard in the Seattle area. Except for the house barges which likely would be unable to navigate to the pumpout facility . However, fortunately there are pumpout services that can pumpout at dock side. SS HEAD is the one we use , Pump Me out and others are out there.

  3. Capt. John TAR November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    While many recreational vessels can pump black water overboard, it is illeagal to do so twithin the confinds of the Salish Sea and its tributaries. house barges look like houses and are over the water the fact that the float is the only thing taht makes them a vessel. House barges after 1990 were labled vessels by the builders and sellers as vesssels to get around the ban on them back in 1990. frankly have spent many months working on this issue. I thik that Kevin and the House barge folks should be greatfull that they were not kicked out period.

    Marinas are built and permitted for recreational vessel used not as over water housing developments. Recreational vessel need moorage at recreational marinas a marina filled with no recreational house barges means loss of recreational boat moorage and an increase in price for recreational moorage space,

  4. Scott Wilson November 11, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    Thanks for keeping up with this issue, Deborah! Great write-up!

    The revisions introduce a touch of sanity into the debate, but while I want to feel happy about them, it feels like applauding the one step forward after taking two steps back. I still have to wonder why, if the city and state are so committed to water quality and shoreline preservation, that they continue to pursue only the smallest portion of the least impactful users. At least when they were going after all liveaboards (and really, let’s call them “stayaboards”… four nights a month doesn’t make you a liveaboard, just a vacationer!) they might have claimed some measurable net benefit (although it’s worth noting, every single time we talk about this, that they have no measure of the purported problems currently) from the regulation. But how many house barges are we talking about? It’s a drop in what was already a very small bucket to begin with.

    So the only real effect of this exercise of state power is going to be to intrude into the lives of folks who weren’t really causing any problem in the grand scheme of things and who have the least capacity to protect themselves from it.

    I tell ya’, it’s almost enough to make you want to Occupy Lake Union! 😉

    • Capt. John TAR November 12, 2011 at 11:00 am #

      House barges are all over the place in Lake Union. Also Kevin Bagley has a vessel that he calls a house barge yet realy in a seaworthy vessel that could tavel anywhere in the Salish Sea if he could keep it in a running condition.

  5. contraryjim November 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    I can understand a marina owner making rules, but the government should have NO say in the matter.

  6. Contrarian November 10, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    I rant? Oh, I get it, if Scott agrees it’s an ‘opinion’ worthy of consideration, but Scott doesn’t agree it’s “just another rant from the right”? (laughter)

    I know exactly what that carbon neutral means … it refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions, but my “whatever that means” tongue-n-cheek reference was targeted at those who have co-opted the term for political purposes with an eye towards creating another revenue source for big government. Carbon neutrality is a worthy goal, but empowering the same type of apparatchik at work in our city bureaucracy with the ability to ‘police’ an individuals Co2 emissions then foist a carbon tax on anyone who exceeds their pre-determined levels – this is not a worthy goal.

    Back on the topic … if a vessel is moored in a public or private marina, or along side an already state-permitted dock, should the owners of that privately owned vessel choose to use the boat once a year or decide to reside on that vessel full time, this is none of states damn business. If however, that vessel impedes public access, prevents public use of the shoreline, or harms the environment in some way, then yes, by the Dept of Planning’s definition, it’s obligated to take action.

    See Scott, my ‘rant’ is not against government action or regulation; it’s against government over action and over regulation.

  7. Mike Perry November 10, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Our local bureaucracies are becoming monsters. Virtually the only blockbuster movie made about our city is Sleepless in Seattle, which is about someone living on a Lake Union houseboat. Yet these bureaucrats, in their obsession with control, want to destroy one of the things that make our city distinctive.

    Despite what they say, city planners aren’t driven by concerns about human issues or the environment. What they’re doing is trying to impressive their professional peers at how good they are at kicking around ordinary people and implementing whatever happens to be the latest fad in their field. Living aboard isn’t “in” within those circles, so it must be crushed.

    We need to ridicule them by name. We need to make a big deal over their every misstep. We need to make their lives miserable until they realize that they are public servants, subject to our will. Otherwise, we’re going to end up like the poor Germans, their every step regulated.

    • Contrarian November 10, 2011 at 9:57 am #

      Well said, Mike. A vessel, houseboat, or barge that is used as a primary residence does not interfere whatsoever with shoreline uses or public access, and has less of an impact on the environment than the typical family home – all stated priorities of the dept of Planning and Development. As a matter of fact, living on a vessel is about as “green” and “carbon neutral” (whatever the hell that is) as you can possibly get.

      The average live-a-board vessel is roughly the size of a large walk in closet you’d find in most homes, therefore the occupants use far less energy than their land-dwelling counterparts, so this agency either needs to set a new list of priorities that more closely align with their stated objectives, or keep their stated objectives and find a more appropriate target for their meddlesome actions.

      The hubris, arrogance, and ignorance from our overpaid and under-worked “public servants” is on full display here. It’s painfully obvious that this is not about shoreline use, public access, nor the environment, what this is, is yet another example of big government central planning encroaching on the private property rights of individuals, and an overreaching dysfunctional bureaucracy hell bent on usurping freedom. “

      • Scott November 10, 2011 at 10:25 am #

        “living on a vessel is about as “green” and “carbon neutral” (whatever the hell that is) as you can possibly get.”

        You’re using ‘carbon neutral’ to make your argument, but don’t know what it means? (laughter)

        “It’s painfully obvious that this is not about shoreline use, public access, nor the environment, what this is, is yet another example of big government central planning encroaching on the private property rights of individuals, and an overreaching dysfunctional bureaucracy hell bent on usurping freedom. “

        Unless you ‘own’ the water the vessel/home is floating upon, it’s public property. I suppose you would argue it’s okay to park your RV in a city/county/state park and not be subject to any regulation?

        Just another rant from the right.

        • Kevin Bagley November 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

          The argument about comparing the vessel to an RV in an illegal spot is not valid. The spot that the houseboat occupies is a legally viable spot for the houseboat vessel. The argument you make is about parking it in an illegal spot. The comparison should be that if you park your RV in an RV Park, if it is a Square one rather than a rounded corner one, we are going to prohibit it. Maggie has made some arguments about vessels being turned back to cruising vessels after they have been used as liveaboards, however, this is NOT reality. These vessels remain liveaboards and if they cruise around, they contribute MORE harm than if they do not move around.

          The argument the city if pushing about grey water had NOT been shown and is a supposition on the DPD’s part. I challenge them to prove the damage is greater from houseboats then from traditional vessel shaped liveaboards. Maggie neglects to mention that many of the traditional vessels have the built in ability to pump over their blackwater – while houseboats are NOT constructed this way.

          The reality of the situation is NOT what DPD is stating, it is simply opinion and they are creating regulations based on opinion, not on science.

    • contraryjim November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

      Well said

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