Officials: Bellingham Bay boats need to anchor legally or move along

Boaters who have overstayed their welcome in Bellingham Bay have been warned by the state: Pay to anchor or move along.

Those who don’t risk fines and the potential their boat could become state property.

City staff is working with the state Department of Natural Resources to make sure all boats anchored in Bellingham Bay follow state regulations.

In general, state law says boaters may anchor on state-owned aquatic lands for up to 30 days for free, but after that point they must move along, said Jane Chavey, a DNR spokeswoman.

If the boat owners do not move their boats to legal moorage slips or anchored buoys operated by the Port of Bellingham, or move to another bay, they may be fined or face other consequences that have not yet been determined by the city, said Steve Sundin of the city’s Planning and Community Development department.

In mid-July the city and DNR tagged warning notices on about 20 vessels that had been in place for more than 30 days. The city and state likely will go out and again tag the boats with 30-day warnings in mid-September before enforcing the rules, Sundin said.

“The underlying premise is to give folks a chance to comply before we apply our rules that include enforcement,” Sundin said. “We want to give them another go and educate those that aren’t aware of the rules. I’m guessing that’s a large part of the issue.”

DNR is concerned with removing boats and unauthorized mooring buoys from state-owned aquatic lands where anchors could damage the underwater ecosystem, Chavey said. The city is concerned with making sure boat owners follow similar rules laid out in the Bellingham Shoreline Master Program.

“This is part of an ongoing effort we have been doing in many bays,” Chavey said. “We manage these waterways as a public asset for everyone in the state.”

Many of the tagged boats are not occupied. But a few have live-aboard owners, some of whom are on the brink of homelessness, said Thomas Tucker, a local boater who has helped out a few men living on boats in the bay.

“The thing is, a lot of those boats aren’t capable of moving, and a lot of the people aren’t capable of moving them,” Tucker said. “They’re one step away from being homeless.”

But that type of live-aboard situation can be problematic, Chavey said.

“When people are living on a mooring buoy or an anchor in the middle of a bay, there are no services, there’s no pump-out station,” Chavey said. “There’s potentially a problem with having hazardous materials go into the public bay.”

Another risk posed by illegally or improperly anchored boats is the potential for crashing or sinking.

“It’s a real burden on the public,” Chavey said. “When they go down, they are really expensive to clean up. It costs millions and millions a year.”

To prevent that type of accident, the state and the Coast Guard have a derelict vessel program to remove unsafe boats before they cause problems.

“We have a list of probably 100 derelict vessels waiting to be dealt with,” Chavey said. “We understand the human aspect of it, there’s no doubt about it. ... That particular issue of someone being homeless but living on their boat needs to be dealt with in the social aspect of their community. We’re trying to find ways to get people moved off their state-owned lands.”

In Eagle Harbor, the city of Bainbridge Island spent a decade working with the state to create an open water anchoring and mooring area that allows for live-aboard vessels to anchor on state-owned land.

“They had a group of several live-aboards there for a long time,” Chavey said. “The city stepped up to the plate and figured out a solution for some of that situation, but that solution would not necessarily be good for Bellingham Bay.”

State derelict vessel rules could allow DNR to take custody of boats that don’t come into compliance. The boats could then be destroyed, and the state could seek reimbursement for the cost of removal.

The city can’t conclude if any of the vessels tagged in July fall under the derelict vessel program, Sundin said.

But if any live-aboards cannot afford to pay for legal moorage, the city does not have a program set up to help connect those people with services, Sundin said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to (help),” Sundin said. “We just don’t have the money for that. No one’s talked about that at the city.”