Does This Look Like A Boat to You?

Bob Heflin and JoAnne McDonnell's floating home at Docktown
Bob Heflin and JoAnne McDonnell's floating home at Docktown
Why Many Docktown Residents Refuse to Sign the City’s New Leases

With the departure of Docktown Inc, in March, Redwood City officials found themselves managing their own waterfront property for the first time since the Harbor was created.  Docktown residents were cautiously optimistic. The former management company had provided minimal repairs, and no improvements, blaming it on their own month to month leases with  landowners and the city.  The city promised improvements.

Then the city insisted that everyone in the Harbor file new a application to be there, even residents who have lived there for more than 20 years so they “could understand who lives here.”  After that they presented everyone with a new 32 page lease that ignored the reality that Docktown is not a traditional boat Marina, but rather a community of people who live on the water.

Calling all residences “vessels” it required, among other things that:

“Vessels” could only be used  for “pleasure and recreational purposes”, and that  ….”no one can live on the vessel at any time without express written permission from city” and “if granted shall be limited to two persons per vessel...”

“Hello, what’s this?” said residents like Tom and Melissa Heyes, who live in a three story floating home with their three children. "Recreational purposes? Two persons?"

“….the vessel will be maintained in a ‘seaworthy, operable condition’ said the lease, ..with regular maintenance of ‘all bright work, rigging, safety equipment and any other appurtenances of the vessel’ .

“Seaworthy? Brightwork and rigging? ” said residents incredulously, “Do they think my home is a sailboat?  And meanwhile the city shall be sole judge of the adequacy of the vessel's condition, maintenance and appearance.”

In addition the City required that all residents give them a lien on their homes!

Outraged, the residents took on the task of creating a more acceptable lease modeled on the floating home communities in Sausalito. But that was rejected outright by  Community Development Manager Bill Ekern, who said emphatically that he was unwilling to recognize the residences as anything other than “watercraft” as he wanted to establish that residents were to be governed by Maritime law and have no property rights.

Instead the City hired a Maritime attorney to update their own license agreement, sweetening the offer with a year’s stay in the harbor in exchange for accepting their restrictions. City officials agreed to meet with representatives from the homeowners to hear their complaints.  But after accepting a few minor changes they abruptly announced negotiations were over, and said all residents must  sign the new “license agreement” as is by July 1 or face eviction.

By signing the agreement, according to their attorneys, tenants accept that their homes  are “watercraft” that can be moved around at will and once the year is over, removed from the Harbor with 60 days notice, with homeowners responsible for any damages incurred.

Nor does the city guarantee residents access to their own berths, or parking, water or utilities, and can even turn off water and power if the City decides they are being wasteful.

“There is no other harbor that will take us”, says floating home owner JoAnn McDonnell. If we have to fight them over evicting us, our attorney says it’s better to have that fight now instead of after we sign a license giving them the right to do that.”

Residents theorize that the city wants to be able to evict them with no impediments once the lease expires if the “Precise Plan” now being developed for the area by the city rejects a floating community at Docktown, which will take them at least a year.

“The City has an obligation to recognize that the property the home is sitting on is its (sic) and it must have the ability to do with its property what it views as necessary.  It is a very complicated situation,” said Ekern in a letter to McDonnell.

And about to get more complicated.  Many residents say that until the city reopens negotiations and works out an agreement with them they can live with they will not sign the new lease.


Lee Callister is the President of the Redwood Creek Association, which represents the interests of the people who live in the floating community at Docktown.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Barb Valley June 19, 2013 at 03:18 AM
Since SCOTUS ruled in January this year that a home that floats on water and has no means of propelling itself is not a vessel and thus maritime law does not apply, how does the City justify its actions?
Lee Callister June 19, 2013 at 11:43 AM
They say they are governed by California law, which requires that "floating homes" be connected to a sewer, something everyone would like to have but hasn't been available to the residents because on the month to month leases under which management operated. (For all but four dwellings sewage is collected by a pump out boat, when then empties its collection into a sewage pipe.) They says the Lozman case only applies here if they try to evict someone in federal court. Ironically the local Sacramento statute does not follow the state low, nor did Redwood City as recently as 2009.
TM June 19, 2013 at 12:16 PM
If they were a person living in their [non-operable] car, parked on a public street, could the city have it removed / towed? I'm not against houseboats. But when the property owner wants to set up some rules / guidelines one would think they would have 51% control? There's a reason to why there are two best days of a boat owner. The day they buy it, and the day they get rid of it. It's not without its inherent risks. Even more so when you are on rented / leased property.
Richard Aldridge June 19, 2013 at 01:02 PM
TM , is it a boat or a car ? It's a $300K home that floats !!
Richard Delfs June 19, 2013 at 01:50 PM
“There is no other harbor that will take us." That got my attention. Shouldn't we at least have the same standards as the other harbors?
Susan Swope June 19, 2013 at 02:08 PM
Come on, Bill. You know that calling these homes "vessels" is ridiculous on its face. If you lived there, I don't think you'd be willing to sign the lease you've proposed. We should be looking at ways to preserve Docktown, not obliterate it. It is part of the character of Redwood City. The City needs to rethink this.
Victor Garcia June 19, 2013 at 03:29 PM
Definitely a boat. They just forgot to take down the cardboard picture before fencing up the harbor. ;-)
Lee Callister June 19, 2013 at 05:42 PM
@Richard Defs. Not sure which side you are on here, but there are differences between boating harbors (like Westpoint) and Houseboat harbors (like Sausalito, and Alameda.) But there are limited numbers of the the latter and they tend to be full up, on top of which it's very dangerous to tow a big house out across the Bay. Docktown is a floating community and the people here quite willing to live by appropriate standards like those that govern the houseboat communities in Sausalito. Having been here for decades with the full knowledge of the City they should now be allowed to stay.
Merrily June 20, 2013 at 12:42 AM
Once again the City of Redwood City is trying to take away affordable housing 'cause it may not be "pretty" or as financially productive as a boutique hotel on baylands! These ARE people's HOMES!! This is a floating home community that cleans up the waterways from upstream!! We should be celebrating our diversity instead of trying to condemn it.
Richard Delfs June 20, 2013 at 03:04 AM
I don't have a dog in this fight, but I'm intrigued by the attitudes displayed in this article. Seems to me the closest analogy is the mobile home park. The owner of the park can raise rental rates, impose new rules, etc. The recourse that the mobile home owners have is to move to another location. If you are a renter, you aren't entitled to the permanence that a property owner has. Yet the slip renters in this Docktown scenario seem to have a sense of entitlement that no other type of renter can claim. Furthermore, if the city now owns the waterfront, they would be within their rights to turn it into a public resource -- something all of us can use. And, if these are not really "watercraft," why not just haul them out of the water and place them within a mobile home park, with actual sewer hookups?
Richard Aldridge June 20, 2013 at 12:46 PM
What's wrong with leaving them where they are ? If the public want waterfront use why are they not complaining about Paul's Corp privatizing two Marinas ?
Damiana June 20, 2013 at 03:41 PM
It's both sad & maddening to see how the City is behaving toward these people. For decades, there haven't been problems w/this community & it added to Redwood City's diversity, affordability, character & charm. I worked w/2 couples who lived there & they were wonderful. I found their lives fascinating. They were hardworking, innovative & thoughtful. I found it to be an interesting community. Must everything become soulless & astringent?!
Susan Swope June 20, 2013 at 04:14 PM
Lee, you are right on. Damiana, I totally agree with you too. At the very least, these homeowners should be included in developing the precise plan for this area. They have the biggest stake in its future.
JoAnn June 21, 2013 at 09:05 PM
This is a vibrant community and a very picturesque addition to the area. The public often uses kayaks and other boats to cruise the creek at Docktown. Let's not let RWC end up looking like everywhere else, full of condos and shopping centers that you can't tell one from the other. The floating community adds something that not many cities have. The residents routinely gather in their dinghies to clean up the creek, and are often the largest group at RWC clean up days. The homeowners do have a representative in the Precise Plan. Let's hope it doesn't end up like the city's offer to have residents have a say in the recent lease, which was a farce, yet they claim that the residents had a say.
Dominique June 22, 2013 at 12:43 PM
The Redwood City I want to live in has a diverse series of communities. The waterfront need not be dominated by caverns of condos. Although the discussion of rights is in the forefront for current residents, the longer term issue is also about the future character of Redwood City. The city has started some good work with the Inner Harbor Precise Plan. There were multiple attempts to evict the houseboats at Sausalito in the early days. Eventually, the city chose to work with the houseboats and have created a vibrant community which is now a magnet for tourism and a landmark of the Bay Area. I'm thinking the current Sausalito City Council and Chamber of Commerce are glad that the developers didn't win then. Proactively develop the waterfront community as a unique asset and we'll enhance and maintain the character of Redwood City.
Joe Ryan June 26, 2013 at 12:17 AM
The Condo Canyons across from Docktown are the type of cookie cutter, bland developments popping up everywhere... We are becoming a box store nation.... the city coffers like the money, but the people of RWC lost a salt marsh... fill it in and sell it. No more Kites or Marsh-hawkes ... How many residents of RWC will say lets go for a hike/stroll at the condo's? Come take a stroll at Docktown, what a vibrant community.


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