By Oliver Lazenby
For Marilyn Rockwell-Bengen, living in Blaine Harbor on “Let Freedom Ring,” her 50-foot Bayliner powerboat, is almost ideal. The harbor’s location provides Rockwell-Bengen and her husband easy access to the San Juans and the Inside Passage, which the retired couple has explored for more than 350 miles up to the village of Bella Bella, B.C.
When they’re not exploring the coast, Rockwell-Bengen and her husband socialize with other so-called “liveaboards” at Blaine Harbor. An afternoon may include barbecuing oysters with friends on the dock or lending tools and pitching in on boat repair projects.
“It’s a fabulous community. It’s very friendly and supportive,” she said. “We get together for birthday parties, we welcome new people. We use any and all occasions to celebrate.”
But Rockwell-Bengen said life has been a little bit less wonderful lately, as an extra cost for living on their boat looms on the horizon.
The Port of Bellingham – which manages Blaine Harbor and Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham — updated its liveaboard regulations this year. After a six-month process that included several public meetings, port commissioners approved an update to the regulations in July. But they decided to postpone a decision on the most controversial of the proposed updates — a monthly fee for living on a boat in the harbor.
This January, port staff and commissioners will take another look at charging a fee to those who live on their boats in addition to monthly moorage – a practice that’s become common at nearby marinas.
Earlier this year, Port of Bellingham staff proposed a $25 monthly fee. Commissioner Dan Robbins pushed for a $70 fee at a July meeting. But ultimately, the commission decided they wanted some justification for having the fee and they wanted the amount based on actual costs incurred on the port by those living on their boats.
“I want to know that if there is a fee, that people are receiving something for that fee,” commissioner Mike McAuley said. “I want the fee justified.”
Though liveaboards don’t have to pay anything more than a pleasure boater who keeps a boat at Blaine Harbor, monthly moorage isn’t cheap. Blaine Harbor resident Ed Lee pays $518.40 a month for his 45-foot powerboat. That doesn’t include electricity, but it does include an excise tax that the state charges in lieu of property tax. Maintaining a boat also adds up – every other year he has to haul his boat out of the water and have the bottom painted, which costs $2,000, he said.
Rockwell-Bengen said she wouldn’t oppose a fee if it came with more services – a guaranteed parking spot, free pump out or free showers, for example – and she and Lee don’t think liveaboards cost the port any more than a typical moorage customer does.
“The port hasn’t given us any reasoning or anything that justifies a fee,” Lee said. “They’ve just alluded to the fact that we cost more, but they haven’t told us why and how.”
Aside from moorage, Blaine boat dwellers pay for electricity on a per-use basis. They also pay to have their holding tanks pumped out. Showers and laundry are coin-operated.
They’re on their boats and using port facilities more than the average moorage customer, but the Port of Bellingham doesn’t know how much that costs.
“There might be some way to quantify it, but we haven’t done that yet,” said Andy Peterson, Blaine harbormaster.
At a July 5 meeting, Robbins suggested liveaboards should pay an additional fee because they don’t pay for garbage. Others pointed out that garbage service is included in the moorage fee.
Marina advisory committee
The discussion about a liveaboard fee started in the marina advisory committee, a group of community members that advises the port.
During the group’s meetings, people frequently complained about parties on the docks at Squalicum Harbor that were either hosted by liveaboards or people who live on their boats but hadn’t officially applied to be liveaboards, said Dan Stahl, Port of Bellingham’s director of seaports and marinas, at a June 7 port meeting. Police have responded to incidents at the marina and escorted people off the docks in handcuffs, Stahl said.
Partly in response to this, port staff began updating its liveaboard regulations, which hadn’t changed since 1995. Along the way, staff looked at adding a fee for living aboard a boat since most nearby harbors charge a fee.
But Rockwell-Bengen said she and other liveaboards don’t see how a fee will solve those problems. “They are two issues being put together that have no reason to be put together,” she said.
Rockwell-Bengen isn’t an official spokesperson for liveaboards in the harbors, but a lot of people seem to agree with her, and when she called herself a liveaboard spokesperson at one port meeting, several people started clapping.
Both Peterson and Rockwell-Bengen said Blaine doesn’t have some of the problems that Squalicum Harbor has.
“I don’t know if the pressure is on this facility as much as Bellingham,” Peterson said. “Part of this liveaboard discussion originated from the big city marina.”
That’s not to say Peterson hasn’t had to enforce rules. He worked with a group of people who tried to live with multiple families on one small boat. That ultimately didn’t work out. He also had to take action when a man started raising chickens on a boat.
“I’m good with pet chickens. I try to be a very open person,” he said. “The problem is he was raising them in a cardboard box with a heat lamp and that’s just not a good idea on a boat. Something’s going to catch fire.”
The new regulations that did pass could help with those and other issues. The new rules include a change to the definition of what makes someone a liveaboard, a limit to the number of people who can live on a boat, a requirement that boats must be at least 26 feet long for someone to live aboard, and an increase in the number of vehicles a boat dweller can have in the parking lot.
The new regulations, like the old, leave much to the discretion of the harbormaster. A few years ago, Peterson had a liveaboard customer who was planning to sail around the world on a 24-foot sailboat. That was before the 26-foot rule, but Peterson said he’d still allow him to live aboard in Blaine Harbor.
“It was right and tight, and he was going to sail around the world on that boat. If he was going to cross the ocean in it, absolutely, he could live here on it,” he said. “That makes sense.”
Fees at other harbors
Most harbors in the region charge a separate fee for living on a boat. The ports of Anacortes, Everett and Seattle charge liveaboards a minimum of $75 and $150 respectively a month. Semiahmoo Marina, just a few hundred feet from Blaine Harbor, charges liveaboards $75 a month. For that fee, liveaboards get access to wi-fi and holding tank pump-out.
In Seattle and Everett, liveaboards don’t get any extra access to services. They pay the fee just for the privilege of living there and the “extra burden they put on the facilities,” said Craig Hooks with the Port of Everett.
Squalicum Harbor and especially Blaine Harbor are smaller than Seattle and Everett. Parking isn’t as tight in Blaine as it is in Seattle, and liveaboards at the Port of Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina are next to downtown Ballard, where rent costs much more than in Blaine.
Port commissioner Bobby Briscoe said at the June 7 meeting it seems as though the port probably could charge a liveaboard fee, but the fact that other harbors do it isn’t enough of a reason.
“I’ve never been one to want to do what someone else is doing just because,” he said. “If we really have a serious need for that $25 to be there to enforce our rules, it needs to be explained to me a little more clearly than it has.”