The Shoreline Master Program is getting updated in many municipalities around Washington state, in accordance with Washington law and Department of Ecology requirements. One of the more controversial and public topics revolved around how to address the floating homes, house boats, and house barges that are primarily centered around Lake Union, Portage Bay, and the Ship Canal. Are they legal? Do they meet SMP requirements for proper use of shoreline resources? Is gray water and black water being properly removed? What are the differences between the three classifications of floating residences in Seattle, and how should each be addressed for any updates to the SMP? These and many other questions were raised.
The local liveaboard community quickly rose to the occasion and gathered support in ensuring that their homes were not threatened. A combination of good intentions and misunderstandings of actual implications were mixed together to form sometimes passionate responses. Local media coverage was extensive, and generally pointed out that these were people’s homes being discussed. The iconic landscape of “Sleepless in Seattle” Lake Union became a romantic rallying point.
Seattle’s Shoreline Master Program was just unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council. In summary, most pre-existing uses for floating homes, house boats, and house barges were grandfathered in and all liveaboard owners can rest easy. Future development is much more restricted, so it makes the existing homes effectively more valuable due to government-limited future supply.
Summary of changes:
- Floating homes: There is a new registration program and future development standards.
- House boats / vessels: New clearer standards were enacted regarding the types of permitted vessels, but pre-existing residential uses are grandfathered in as noncomforming uses that can continue plus be repaired/reconstructed as needed.
- House barges: The 34 pre-approved Seattle house barges can continue on as they are, with the clarification that discharge of gray water must meet the requirements set in 1992 for these homes.
Overall it ended up as a good balance between protecting the property rights and values of existing owners of floating residences while also taking into account more restrictive requirements for future new construction of similar residences that will meet current environmental regulations.
Floating homes on Seattle’s Lake Union
The Seattle City Council approved its long-underway revision to the Shoreline Master Program (SMP). These regulations pertain to buildings, homes, uses, and construction along the city’s waterways. Any updates can create controversy among competing factions, as was the case this time too.
The Seattle Times summarized changes to the SMP as including “an allowance for building boats for Washington State Ferries, a provision that fueling stations must be for boats only, limits on signs in the shoreline area and restrictions on pesticides and fertilizers”.
I provide a more detailed analysis and update regarding the discussions around houseboats, house barges, and floating homes in a separate post here.
The Supreme Court decided in a 7-2 ruling that a residence which floats on the water – and which is obviously constructed to serve as a residence – should be treated under the regulations for houses and not vessels. This is important in some scenarios because home owner protection regulations and admiralty law have different levels of protections and uses. Real estate laws are generally considered to be more protective of home owner rights, and they would have helped the defendant in the Supreme Court case had his home been considered a house by local government officials.
The Seattle Floating Homes Association was supportive of the decision. However, this does somewhat “muddy the waters” regarding some of the recent Shoreline Master Program (SMP) discussions regarding which regulations Lake Union’s house boat communities should uphold. House boats are classified as vessels, they have steering and propulsion (though rarely, if ever, use them), and they must abide by Coast Guard regulations. This new ruling puts that definition in a bit of limbo since it could be interpreted to classify these house boats as houses. One important distinction, though: the floating residence situation that initiated the court battle had no propulsion, steering, or rudder. This puts it more in the category of a barge or floating home than a house boat. In Seattle, we actually have three different designations for what many people lump together as “house boats”: floating homes, house boats, and house barges.
Kayaking by floating homes on Seattle’s Lake Union
There’s now a “famous person groupies” cruise around Lake Union and Lake Washington, showing the locations of famous people who live on our beautiful lakes. Here is the info quoted from their inaugural invitation:
“”Map of the Stars” Cruise-Tours
The 3 hour “Map of the Stars” cruise includes Lake Union sights (Sleepless in Seattle floating home, Chihuly’s Studio, views of Space Needle and downtown, etc.) and Lake Washington with the premiere mansions (Gates, McCaws, Schultz, et al.) of Madison Park, The Eastside’s Gold Coast (Meydenbauer Bay, Medina and Hunts Point) and the North end of Mercer Island. I will narrate the tour and provide information as we view most of the homes in the book. We include the homes of eighty percent of the state’s billionaires. I will also point out homes listed for sale for more than $5 million.
The yacht has a wonderful upper level sundeck and a stately heated interior party and dining room with large picture windows.
Appetizers and dinner buffet
Margaritas, wine, beer and soft drinks
The book, Lake Washington 130 Homes ($17.95 retail).
$50 per person
More information is at: Anchor Bay Charters (includes map and directions) and Hundred Homes.
View some of these cruises on YouTube (2 minutes):
From the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance: this year’s Lake Union and Portage Bay Sweep. It’s a fun event where you can be out on the water, help pretty up the area, and have some nice camaraderie with other folks along our urban waterfront. From the organizers:
“Over 200 volunteers in kayaks, row boats and motorized craft remove 2-3 tons of trash annually from Lake Union and Portage Bay. Volunteers are treated to a picnic lunch provided by event sponsors and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.”
The event will be held May 15th from 8:00am to 2:00pm. Contact and other info can be found at the link above.