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Originally published November 18, 2010 at 9:26 PM | Page modified November 18, 2010 at 9:26 PM

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Eagle Harbor liveaboards: Their water world may end

The liveaboard community anchored in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island has been told by the state to move their boats by Dec. 15.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The liveaboard sailboats and houseboats in Bainbridge Island's Eagle Harbor swing free in the wind and tides, just as they have for a century.

The residents of this bohemian community of 14 or so — who's really counting? — like it that way. They don't pay rent. They row in with their sewage in containers, and row out with news from the mainland.

As of Dec. 15, however, it may come to an end. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which owns the tidelands in which the liveaboards set their anchors, served eviction notices last week after years of negotiations with the city of Bainbridge Island broke down.

State rules enacted in 2002 were written specifically to allow "open-water marinas" like this. But reaching an agreement on the fine details by the state-imposed Oct. 1 deadline evaded DNR, the city, liveaboards and homeowners along the harbor.

Solutions are still being floated, and neither the city nor the state is eager to see it come to a head.

Ray Nowak, a merchant-marine seaman who favors a black beret and gold hoop earring, has lived aboard houseboats in the harbor for 20 years. His neighbors include "Toothless Jeff" and "the smelly old lumberjack."

He said many of his neighbors are willing to pay reasonable lease fees, but are now tired and fearful of the short-term future. And angry.

"I despise bullies," Nowak said of the state. "I've decided I'm going to dig in my heels and make a stand. I'll be here until they put their jackboots on my cleat and say I can't tie up here."

Open-water squatters

There are hundreds of liveaboards nestled into marina slips on Puget Sound, paying monthly lease fees for the use of state land.

The Eagle Harbor liveaboards represent a much smaller number who are essentially open-water squatters. The appeal of those unregulated arrangements combines an environmentalists' aesthetic joy with an off-the-grid seafarer's curmudgeonliness.

The state has a complicated relationship with liveaboards, regulated and unregulated. In 2000, former state Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher tried to ban them from all 2.6 million acres of aquatics lands, including marinas, for ecological reasons.

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After strong protests — and Belcher's electoral defeat — the state changed course. In 2002, it allowed leases for liveaboards in marinas and in open water. New Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has since taken aim at unregulated flotillas, breaking up one last summer near Key Peninsula.

The DNR and Bainbridge Island have negotiated, off and on, since 2002 over the Eagle Harbor community. In 2005, a group of homeowners sued to bring the liveaboards under state rules, and as a consequence, the talks accelerated. The Legislature recently set aside $40,000 to help pay for buoys for an open-water marina.

The talks broke down this fall, with the city balking at the details. To comply with a rule requiring four buoys for recreational use for every permanent one, Bainbridge Island would have had to deploy a "buoy field" of 56 buoys while day-use slips at the nearby dock and marina sit empty.

"It makes absolutely no sense," said Hilary Franz, a Bainbridge Island City Council member and environmental attorney who participated in the talks. "It clogs up the waterway that DNR says they're trying to clean up and causes environmental degradation."

Kristin Swenddal, DNR's aquatics manager, said her agency must bring the Eagle Harbor liveaboards into a lease, but hoped a deal could still be reached.

"We can't just ignore one user group and decide we'll look the other way. When someone wants to use public lands for private use, they're expected to pay a lease fee and conform to the rules."

Asked about the timing of the eviction notices being issued as winter approached, Swenddal said it was "unfortunate."

A historic link

Eagle Harbor has remained a unique case in the liveaboard controversy. It is a tradition that stretched from Bainbridge Island's maritime and timber roots through its gentrification into a wealthy Seattle bedroom community today.

It was once a larger community, with families. It has shrunk with the regulatory uncertainty, but is still valued as a unique link to the seafaring history of the island.

A local group has sprung up in defense, a counter argument to the harbor homeowners who sued the DNR. Charlotte Rovelstad, a Bainbridge Islander who has become an advocate for the liveaboards, said allegations that the liveaboards are causing environmental damage are unsupported.

"These are very individual people, who want to live off the grid, who live with the smallest carbon footprint of any of us," she said.

In 2005, the Kitsap County Health District tested Eagle Harbor for elevated levels of fecal coliform, but found none, said Stuart Whitford, a pollution analyst for the district.

"There's been a lot of allegations that fly around that liveaboards dump sewage into Eagle Harbor, but we don't have any evidence of that," he said.

Nowak, rowing a reporter for a tour around the harbor, said living so immersed in nature is tranquil, but hard. He heats his houseboat — a 200-square-foot vessel named Wicca: first built in 1940 — with a wood stove and uses golf-cart batteries for light. He rows his sewage to shore, while some of his neighbors use a pumping station at the city dock.

"It's not all lollipops and roses," he said. "You get on your knees, bail out the dingy and row against the wind."

Unless a deal can be reached soon, the liveaboards will be forced to move or face stiff fines. One alternative suggested by the DNR is moving to a nearby marina.

"No way," said Ted Davis, another liveaboard. "It's a trailer park."

Besides, Nowak said, there's a principle at stake. "We were here before there was a city of Bainbridge Island," Nowak said of the liveaboard community. "Instead of us conforming to their rules, they should be conforming to ours."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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