The Freedom Foundation is proposing a rule change that would prevent the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from evicting houseboat residents.
Last October, the agency threatened to shut down two Olympia area marinas, Martin and Westbay, if they did not evict the houseboat residents that lived there by Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28.
The houseboat owners — known as “live-aboards”— had done nothing wrong. They owned their own homes, always paid their monthly moorage fees on time and weren’t hurting anybody.
Far from being a nuisance, local marina managers say the live-aboards are good tenants and provide a unique ambience to the harbor. Moreover, many of the boat owners at the Olympia marina appreciate the live-aboards, citing their constant presence on the docks as a deterrent to would-be thieves.
So why is DNR forcing them out of their homes?
In a news segment for KING-5 news, DNR spokesman Peter Lavallee claimed the floating homes were “not in compliance with the law.” But after speaking with him on the phone and doing our own research into the issue, we learned that that wasn’t actually true.
The problem isn’t the law at all; there is no law banning houseboats from state-owned harbor areas, and never has been.
Houseboats have been a key part of Washington state culture since the 1800s, even being prominently featured in the iconic 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle.
The problem is actually with the Washington Administrative Code (WAC), a “rule book” state agencies draft to help implement legislation.
When laws are passed by the state Legislature, the responsibility for enforcing those laws falls to a specific state agency. When the agency needs to “fill in the gaps” for a piece of legislation, it creates a new rule, adding it to the state’s WAC register.
State agencies frequently cite rules they have created when they are justifying enforcement actions against individuals.
In this case, the specific rule banning houseboats — WAC 332-30-109 (11) — was put on the books by DNR during the 1980s, but for which law was it intended to “fill in the gaps?”
DNR claims the rule banning houseboats is justified under RCW 79.115.010 (2), which states that, “The (harbor-line commission) board shall locate and establish outer harbor lines beyond which the state shall never sell or lease any rights whatever to private persons, and to locate and establish the inner harbor line, thereby defining the width of the harbor area between such harbor lines. The harbor area shall be forever reserved for landings, wharves, streets, and other conveniences of navigation and commerce.”
If you don’t see anything in there about banning houseboats, you aren’t alone.
From internal DNR e-mail correspondence obtained by the Freedom Foundation through a public records request, it appears the agency is trying to justify this long-forgotten, seldom-enforced and little-understood rule by saying houseboats pose a threat to other vessels’ ability to navigate.
There’s only one problem. It’s not true.
DNR has not provided any evidence (real or anecdotal) to suggest houseboats are an impediment to the navigation of other vessels. Indeed, there seem to be no known instances of a vessel’s ability to navigate having been impeded or otherwise negatively impacted by the mere presence of a houseboat in harbor areas. Neither has this absence of problems been due to a lack of co-existence of vessels and houseboats in DNR-owned tidelands.
DNR’s selective and sporadic enforcement of this rule has meant vessels and houseboats have occupied harbors in tandem for decades, without impediment to navigation or other issues.
The Freedom Foundation made repeated attempts to reach DNR Commissioner Peter Goldmark for an explanation of why his agency was trying to contrive a legal justification for this rule as opposed to simply repealing it. Unfortunately, he would not return our phone calls.
The Freedom Foundation is committed to stopping governmental overreach. That’s why we’re taking action to rein in any state agency that makes up its own damaging rules that serve no practical purpose.
That’s also why we recently submitted our Petition to repeal DNR rule WAC 332-30-109 (11), challenging the agencies’ authority to create the rule in the first place and challenging their claim that the rule serves any practical purpose.
Since we made the request pursuant to RCW 34.05 “The Administrative Procedures Act,” DNR must either a) repeal the rule banning houseboats, or b) issue an official statement explaining why they believe it makes sense to waste thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal costs, going to court to attack a small group of people who have done nothing wrong.
DNR is legally required to make its decision within 60 days of Dec. 9, the day we sent in the request.
In the meantime, the live-aboards have been able to secure a temporary reprieve from DNR’s “generous” Thanksgiving Day eviction deadline by contacting their elected representatives, who were able to negotiate with the agency for an extension.
For now, DNR is still actively pursuing the eviction of the houseboat residents. Despite being good marina tenants and having done nothing wrong, the live-aboards are now facing the total loss of all economic value of their homes, and the prospect of homelessness.
Hopefully, DNR will reverse its decision soon, before the live-aboards are forced to abandon their beloved long-time homes.
"It's the Law"