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Officials to cut the line on liveaboard

This spring and summer the state and county will work together to try to rid Quartermaster Harbor of a small population of people who live illegally on their boats.

“Living out in the water attached to a buoy is not a good idea,” said Lisa Randlette, a planner with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Resources Division and the principal author of a recent state plan to enforce boat moorage rules on Vashon and bring order to the harbor.

Officials say enforcing the new plan — as well as making use of a new King County Sheriffs Office’s patrol boat for Puget Sound — will help them more easily address the small group of liveaboards in the harbor, people who largely keep to themselves but are breaking state laws surrounding moorage and are also believed to be polluting the water.

“I can see the attraction, but it’s not something the state is authorizing,” Randlette said. “It’s just a very critical human health and safety issue.”

Those familiar with Quartermaster Harbor say there has long been a fluctuating population of people who live on boats there, particularly at Dockton. Some liveaboards are transients who stay for a while before moving on to another harbor; others live consistently on Vashon and sometimes come ashore to work during the day.

According to state law, boaters can live aboard their vessels in a registered slip in a marina, but can only live anchored in one place on state-owned aquatic land for 30 days before they are required to move on. Boaters also can’t live more than 90 days in one place during the course of a year. Those who live in the same location for longer are considered to be squatting on state aquatic land.

“We can’t let people stay for an extended period of time,” Randlette said.

While those who live on boats in Quartermaster generally don’t cause trouble on land, those close to the situation say they’re concerned about liveaboards’ environmental impact on the harbor, which is part of the state-owned Maury Island Aquatic Reserve.

Randlette, who has visited Quartermaster several times by boat, said most liveaboards dump their sewage into the water, and they sometimes dump their food waste and other trash as well. She noted that as part of a separate project, the state is currently working to see that waterfront homeowners fix their failing septic systems in an effort to improve the health of Quartermaster. That effort could be hampered, she said, if liveaboards continue to dump their own waste into the water.

“That’s not healthy for the environment, and that water really doesn’t flush efficiently,” she said. “That’s where we’re having some quality problems and concerns.”

Scott Snyder, the county parks department’s maintenance coordinator for Vashon, said he believes liveaboards’ boats are often leaky and in bad repair. Every now and then, an old boat breaks loose and washes ashore at Dockton Park, he said, or sinks nearby.

“A number of those can be traced back to liveaboards,” he said. “That’s what we’ve seen over the past few years.”

King County Sheriff’s Office officials say islanders who live in Dockton sometimes call to report suspicious activity on boats in the harbor and have said they suspect liveaboards are making drugs or committing other crimes. But Sgt. James Knauss, who heads the sheriff’s office’s marine unit, said the claims just don’t check out.

“There are a variety of things that get reported to us. I think a lot of it is concerned citizens,” he said.  “We get calls that they’re thieving from the local community, but we’ve never made an arrest for that. ... I’m not really seeing that negative piece of it to be real, but I do see that they’re living on boats.”

Dept. Joel Anderson, who has worked on Vashon for several years, said he’s sometimes called when boaters refused to pay moorage fees at Dockton Park. He’s even arrested liveaboards, he said, but only on warrants, and not because of their activities in Dockton.

“In the past, people have been moored up on the dock illegally. I investigate a little further and find they have felony warrants,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has had mixed success enforcing rules regarding living on boats in Quartermaster. The marine unit is sometimes called to issue warnings to those known to be living on their boats, but its patrol boats are mainly dedicated to the region’s lakes. That is, until now.

Last week the sheriff’s office acquired a new boat that will be kept in Des Moines and will regularly patrol Puget Sound waters in King County.

Partnering with DNR, they hope to visit Quarter-master Harbor more often and keep tabs on any liveaboards there.

According to DNR’s Quarter-master Harbor Mooring Buoy Plan, which the agency released a final draft of last month, this summer the state will issue licenses for buoys in three designated buoy fields at Burton, Dockton and the mouth of Judd Creek. Those who pay an annual fee and install a buoy system that meets state environmental standards may moor in a designated spot, while those who don’t comply could face steep fines. Abandoned buoys will be pulled, and a few derelict, deteriorating or sunken boats have already been removed by the state.

Randlette said the new system, in addition to bringing order to the harbor and helping protect the environment there, will also make it easier for deputies and SNR officials who visit the harbor to spot those who move in and live on their boats.

“Basically we’re going to be able to say here’s the parking lot and here are the boat numbers for the parking lot,” she said. “We’re really going to have a baseline of who is there and who is a newcomer. It think it will really help us be efficient.”

Knauss said deputies in the marine unit will begin to regularly patrol Quartermaster and issue warnings to liveaboards as soon as this month, recording who has been contacted. When the state implements its new mooring plan — which it plans to do this summer if the proper permits are obtained — deputies will begin to issue fines to liveaboards who don’t leave. Knauss said usually liveaboards move on without deputies having to take further action.

“Ninety-nine percent of enforcement comes through education and warnings,” he said. “We like to be nice guys, and we understand that they have a whole lifestyle they’ll have to edit to accommodate the rules.”

Randlette said she believes progress has already been made. Thank’s to previous sheriff’s office responses, and perhaps word that the state will soon enforce the rules, the number of liveabaords seems to have dwindled, she said. When DNR began its planning and outreach on Vashon a few years ago, there was a fluctuating population of 10 to 15 people living in the harbor, she said. Now, there may only be a small handful.

“They may come and go, but I would really sing the praises of the King County Marine Unit and their efforts to notify people they need to move on and following up with them,” she said.

Knauss said there may be fewer on boats in the harbor now, but emphasized that the entire region has had problems with liveaboards and there are more during the summer months, as well. He said he has actually seen the liveaboard population in Quartermaster grow in recent years during times when other counties have cracked down and pushed them out of their harbors.

“What’s happening is other counties around us are being very aggressive in moving them, making sure they move like they need to,” he said.

No liveaboards could be reached for comment.

Nancy Capps, an islander who lives across the street from Dockton Park and once worked at the park, said she’s known liveaboards she considered to be upstanding as well as those who seemed to have troubled lives. She said she was mainly concerned about what they dump into the harbor and would like to see that addressed. A pump station is available at Dockton Park, but liveaboards seldom use it.

“I’m all for cleaning up Quartermaster,” Capps said. “I can tell by the stuff that washes up on the beach that there are a lot of people dumping out there.”

Don Wolczko, a longtime boater who once lived legally in his boat at Quartermaster Marina, said he thinks some people overreact about liveaboards’ impact on the harbor. He noted that while they may dump sewage in the harbor, they also have few possessions, don’t take up land, don’t use much energy and overall have a small environmental footprint.

“I think it’s a great lifestyle, and I think it’s the kind of thing where people look at the waste produced … but you have to look at the whole picture,” he said.

Knauss said the sheriff’s office had to enforce the law but also seemed to sympathized with those who live on boats. He said he wished some would take advantage of government services available to them. He said he’s seen some liveaboards move on to better living situations and hoped the same thing might happen in Quartermaster.

“Maybe education is a powerful tool,” he said. “That’s what would be really good, is to see people get some good support.”

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