Juneau’s Docks and Harbors division is reconsidering a proposed regulation change that would cap the number of live-aboard vessels allowed in each of the city’s four harbors.
A few harbor patrons sparked Docks and Harbors’ decision to reconsider the proposed limit after they raised concerns about it, according to the city’s Port Director Carl Uchytil.
“We listen to our patrons when they bring up points we haven’t thought about,” he told the Empire Friday afternoon. “We’re not going to force something down without engaging the public.”
For a couple months, the Docks and Harbors Board has been kicking around the idea of limiting the number of live-aboard vessels to 10 percent stall occupancy in each harbor. This has all been at the subcommittee level, far removed from actual implementation.
When harbor patrons asked him later how he came up with the percentage for the limit, Uchytil said he realized that he didn’t have “a very scientific answer” and that it would be best for Docks and Harbors to do more research.
Uchytil said the proposed change stems from a rise in crime in Aurora harbor and infrastructure limitations, both of which he said are related to live-aboards. Erann Kalwara, a spokesperson with the Juneau Police Department confirmed Friday that there has been a slight uptick in crimes reported in Aurora Harbor during the past three years.
The goal, Uchytil said, is to establish a “carrying capacity” for live-aboard vessels in the harbor — the number of these boats that the harbor can reasonably maintain, that is.
“There’s an appropriate number of live-aboards you want to encourage, but you can’t just leave that number open,” he told the Empire in an earlier interview Thursday.
The board “is not even close” to reaching the consensus needed to send this matter to a public hearing, according to Uchytil. Still, it was enough to worry the three or four people who expressed concerns to the board.
“It wasn’t droves of people; it was just a handful of thoughtful patrons that came forward,” Uchytil said.
For Aurora Harbor, which currently contains the most live-aboard vessels of any city-owned harbor, the proposed 10 percent cap would allow for 45 such boats. There are currently 88 live-aboard vessels, housing more than 100 people, in that harbor.
The proposed cap would allow for a total of 92 live-aboard vessels in the city’s four harbors — Aurora, Harris, Douglas and Statter. That’s a roughly 44 percent reduction from the 162 live-aboard boats that are currently moored in those four harbors.
Some people who live aboard boats, such as Russell J. Peterson, are uneasy about the proposed reduction. Peterson has lived aboard boats in Aurora Harbor for close to 30 years. His most recent home is the MV Seal, a 90-year-old wooden boat that he has been restoring for the past 13 years.
“I love this harbor, and I like the vision that Docks and Harbors has, but I can’t imagine that they would discourage live-aboards, even limit the number of them,” he said, speaking over the sound of rain pelting the tarp covering his boat for the winter.
All aboard for
Russell and others fear that limiting the number of live-aboard vessels cuts into an important alternative housing option for people looking to avoid the steep rents and high-cost of housing for which Juneau is known.
LaVern Beier has been living in Aurora Harbor since 1984, making him the harbor’s second longest-running resident. He is currently the longest-running year-round resident.
Beier currently lives aboard a wooden vessel that was build in 1937. He jokes that he sold the older 1936 vessel that he lived in previously “for something nice and new.”
Beier isn’t one to get involved in harbor politics. He’s never been to a Docks and Harbors board meeting, and he isn’t particularly concerned about the proposed live-aboard cap. He’s weathered policies like this before, he said.
During the three decades he has lived in the harbor, he has seen plenty of people join and then extricate themselves from the live-aboard community. Living on a boat is a lot more work than most people think it will be, he said.
“You’re not going to see a lot of people who have stayed as long as me,” he said Friday afternoon while sitting on a bench in the wheelhouse of his boat. “For most people, it’s economical housing; it’s kind of a stepping stone from one thing to another.”
Juneau Chief Housing Officer Scott Ciambor said Friday that he, too, has noted that many people use the city’s harbors as a cheaper alternative housing option. He has no desire to explore live aboards as a means to lower the city’s high cost of housing.
Not to worry
Port Director Uchytil recognizes that people use the city’s harbors as an alternative housing source. The Juneau Assembly, which provides direction for the Docks and Harbors division, hasn’t charged him with making housing a priority. In fact, providing housing isn’t a part of Docks and Harbors mission at all.
“People are always going to look for affordable housing where they can find it,” he said. “Our charge is to protect our harbors and our patrons.”
Still, Uchytil isn’t looking to boot anybody from a home, which is why he and the board are heading back to the drawing board to determine how many live aboards they will allow — and whether they will include a grandfather clause for those already in use.
“Our goal is not to kick people out,” he said Thursday. “If we limit the number of live aboards, it would be through some sort of attrition process.”
During the next few months, Uchytil and the board will try to determine a reasonable cap for live-aboards and a practical approach to implement such a cap. It’s too early to tell how either might look.
The way Beier sees it, the harbor and its patrons shouldn’t have any problem so long as boat owners living on their vessels take proper care of them.
“What’s wrong with living aboard so long as the boats are maintained and operated?” he said, noting that isn’t the case for everybody who lives in Juneau harbors. “I would say that for most people, it is about affordable housing, but there aren’t many people who are live-aboards because they are really dedicated to boat life.”