Seattle state Reps. Jamie Pedersen (D-43) and Reuven Carlyle (D-36) have introduced legislation that would effectively exempt houseboats from some local environmental regulations, prompting alarm in the environmental community.

The city is currently considering new environmental rules aimed at protecting the city's shorelines, including Lake Union and Portage Bay. However, houseboat owners in those areas say the rules are excessively stringent and will make it impossible for them to improve or update their homes.

Some background: In 2004, the state amended the state Shoreline Management Act, which hadn't been updated since 1972, to reflect current environmental science. "We didn't have the sort of urban development back then that we do today---we have far more development now, far more congestion, and we've lost a lot of critical habitat as a result," says People for Puget Sound lobbyist Bruce Wishart. In response to the update, cities across the state, including Seattle, are currently updating their own shoreline plans.

The problem, Pedersen and Carlyle say, is that the rules proposed by Seattle's Department of Planning and Development would make it basically impossible for houseboat owners to modify their homes. "There's a lot of floating homeowners who are having trouble with the city of Seattle approving anything to do with their houseboats," Pedersen says. "They're basically saying, 'You can't do renovations.' They're just being really difficult about allowing any permits for anything to do with houseboats, which is causing a lot of angst among the homeowners."

Technically, the legislation would change houseboats from a "water-related use" --- one that doesn't necessarily have to be on the water---to a "water-dependent" use, which is exempt from city shoreline regulations. "It's just an exemption to allow them to exist," Carlyle says. "From the perspective of individual homeowners, they're quite water dependent," Pedersen adds.

However, Wishart says houseboats can have significant environmental impacts---for one thing, they destroy eel grass and other critical aquatic habitat. Additionally, Wisher says the bill would take away local governments' authority to pass their own regulations. "The concern is that we're creating exemptions for this activity when we have whole ecosystems in decline right now," Wishart says. "There needs to be authority for local governments to make these decisions."

The state Department of Natural Resources is also concerned. This morning, DNR legislative director Heath Packard wrote a letter to the sponsors of the bill questioning "the need for this legislation."

"This change would open the door to allowing an expansion of floating houses across the state," Packard's letter continues. "The potential ecological impacts of an expansion of this use could run counter to state goals to clean up and restore Puget Sound by 2020. Again, existing house boats are protected and not at any risk that we are aware of."

Nick Federici, a lobbyist for the Seattle Floating Homes Association, disputes this, saying that under the city's original proposal, "if you wanted to rebuild or upgrade [a houseboat], you had to go through a costly and restrictive process that a lot of houseboat owners wouldn't be able to afford. ... The regulations that were originally proposed by the city of Seattle would have eventually led to a war of attrition on houseboats over time."

Federici acknowledges that the bill is "sort of the thermonuclear option," and says it's meant to be merely a "starting point" to put the houseboat owners in a better negotiating position with the city. "You ask for what you want and then you negotiate," Federici says, adding that the bill "was very successful at getting the attention of the city."

The bill has two hearings tomorrow---one in the House and one in the Senate, where it's being co-sponsored by Sens. Ed Murray (D-43) and Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36). Federici says he hopes to have a version of the bill that the city, environmentalists, and houseboat owners can agree to as early as tomorrow.

The Department of Planning and Development has not yet returned a call for comment.
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