SANTA BARBARA –The last remaining four houseboats in Santa Barbara Harbor could very well be the last four to ever exist in the marina, as the Santa Barbara Harbor Commission unanimously approved to move forward with adopting new – and restrictive – language defining what vessels are permitted to reside in the marina.
While the language is still being worked out, four commissioners of the seven-member panel supported initial wording of the definition as read to them by Santa Barbara’s Harbor Operations Manager Mick Kronman. At the Sept. 25 meeting, Harbor Commissioner Helene Webb, who owns a houseboat, abstained from the vote.
Two commissioners were not present at the Sept. 25 meeting.
The definition reads: “A self-propelled, floating craft whose physical characteristics indicate that it was designed and constructed for the purpose of carrying people or goods over water.”
Kronman said the proposed definition was needed because the Santa Barbara Harbor Master Plan identifies the waterfront as a “working harbor” intending to serve commercial fishing and recreational uses.
“It’s never been designed as a harbor for floating homes,” Kronman told commissioners.
The city of Santa Barbara attempted to address houseboats within its harbor in the past, enacting separate ordinances to regulate navigability and operability of vessels.
Kronman said the harbor’s liveaboard policies would be unaffected by the updated definition of a vessel.
“This isn’t about liveaboards. This is about craft; what kind of craft are appropriate to be berthed in Santa Barbara Harbor,” Kronman said.
Houseboats differ from liveaboards. A liveaboard is generally someone who makes his or her primary residence on a boat, be it a yacht or sailboat. Whereas a houseboat is a boat modified into a residential structure on the water and is also a place where a liveaboard might establish primary residence.
The Harbor Commission approved four draft policy parameters, which include (1) giving houseboat owners a right to do a “straight transfer.” This policy would allow a party to purchase a floating home from a current houseboat owner and then transfer it into its slip; (2) granting houseboat owners the right to add slip partners, though a transfer fee would apply; (3) allowing a houseboat owner the right to swap slips with a similarly sized vessel or grandfathered floating home; and (4) no requirement to meet [the] proposed definition of vessel.
Kronman explained that he met with houseboat owners to discuss the proposal to update the definition of a vessel and they were essentially on board with the plan.
One of those houseboat owners – John Gill – wrote a letter to the Harbor Commission. The letter was read by Webb during the meeting.
“I have lived, worked, fished, surfed and sailed in and out of the harbor for almost 20 years. I’m sure my houseboat is not the most conventional looking but it is safe, well loved and serves its purpose superbly,” Gill stated in the letter.
Gill, who named his houseboat Ishi, said houseboats are a dying breed.
“With approval of the draft policy, there will not be another Ishi. Although this saddens me a bit as an artist and a dreamer, I am sure it is a sigh of relief for the Waterfront Department,” he continued. “I understand their commitment to keeping the harbor a working harbor and not a floating housing project. I don’t want that either.”
Gill added he supported the draft policy as a means to help preserve the harbor.
Webb echoed Gill’s sentiments and perspectives as a fellow floating home occupant.
With the Harbor Commission supporting the drafted definition of a vessel, houseboats would no longer be allowed to dock within Santa Barbara Harbor. However, the four houseboats currently in the harbor would be grandfathered in and allowed to remain in place.
Kronman said the ordinance still needs to be drafted and the Santa Barbara City Council has to approve the proposed definition. He expects the process to be complete by June 2015.
“We think we are doing the right thing at the right time,” Kronman said.
He explained that the decision to update the definition of vessel, which aims to limit the proliferation of houseboats in a working harbor, is based upon a recent Supreme Court ruling.
In January 2013, the Supreme Court ruled houseboats are not vessels.
“Not every floating structure is a ‘vessel,’” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.“In our view a structure does not fall within scope of [the definition of a vessel] unless a reasonable observer, looking at the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.”