Richardson Bay will soon look different. A new agreement between two agencies tasked with protecting the Bay will remove the anchored-out boats that have occupied the waters for decades. If things go according to plan, about 86 people will lose their homes and their unconventional lifestyles in the next few years.
The San Francisco Bay Conservation Development Agency (BCDC), a state regulatory agency, gave an ultimatum to the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), a coalition of the governments of Belvedere, Mill Valley, Tiburon and unincorporated Marin. Enter into the agreement or face enforcement action, the BCDC said.
Rather than become embroiled in costly and risky litigation, the RBRA board of directors voted unanimously to rid the Bay of all the vessels by Oct. 15, 2026.
Any anchored-out boats that arrived in Richardson Bay after an August 2019 census must be removed by Oct. 15, 2023. Those that were on the anchorage prior to the census may stay the additional three years.
Applicable law allows boats to drop anchor in Richardson Bay for 72 hours, unless granted permission to stay longer. For years, the regulation was largely ignored, until the state auditor released a report in 2019, which concluded the BCDC failed to perform key responsibilities and allowed ongoing harm to the Bay. The report referred to, among other issues, vessels anchored illegally in Richardson Bay. The BCDC then began to pressure the RBRA and the City of Sausalito, which left the RBRA in 2017, to step up enforcement of the 72-hour law.
In mid-2020, the RBRA adopted a transition plan, which included seizing unoccupied vessels, and occasionally occupied vessels. The seized boats are crushed at the Army Corps of Engineers’ facility in Sausalito. Although the RBRA whittled down the number of boats on the estuary from 200 in July 2019 to 86 today, the agency apparently wasn’t moving fast enough for the BCDC.
“The BCDC communicated that they feel they have waited long enough for a resolution of a situation out on the water which has been around for a long time, and they are out of patience,” RBRA board president and Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said.
The agreement also requires the RBRA to set a boundary for an eelgrass protection zone and restore damaged eelgrass within that area. The BCDC claims that anchors destroy the indigenous eelgrass, subaquatic vegetation, which some fish and birds rely on for food and habitat.
The fate of the 86 mariners living on Richardson Bay is addressed in the agreement. The RBRA will continue its efforts to connect the mariners with social workers who can assist them in finding housing in marinas or on land after they are removed from the Bay.
To help achieve the lofty housing goal, the BCDC has agreed to consider proposals to increase the percentage, at least temporarily, of affordable marina slips available for liveaboard boats. Ten percent of marina slips are currently allocated for liveaboards. The BCDC is considering increasing the limit to 15%, RBRA harbormaster Curtis Havel said.
Both the RBRA and the mariners recognize that trust between the two groups has become a thorny issue. While the RBRA repeatedly says it only seizes and crushes unoccupied boats, the anchor-outs and their supporters cry foul.
The mariners point to a list of people whose occupied boats have been seized and destroyed, including Robyn Kelly, who is currently suing the RBRA for illegally seizing and crushing her power boat. In January, Havel seized Jeremy “Jack” Casimir’s sailboat while Casimir was at the grocery store. Although Havel admits he knew Casimir was living on the vessel, he said the boat wasn’t safe and called it “marine debris.”
Anchor-outs also accuse the RBRA of targeting certain mariners, especially women and those with mental health issues.
The troubled relationships became more complicated when documents garnered from a public records request earlier this year revealed that social service agencies working to help the mariners find housing were exchanging information about them with the RBRA, Sausalito Police Department and Marin County Sheriff’s Office.
Another bone of contention is whether the RBRA has jurisdiction over Richardson Bay. The anchor-out community insists Richardson Bay is a federal anchorage and the RBRA’s enforcement is unlawful.
Havel disagrees.The federal government designated Richardson Bay a “special anchorage” when it began drawing up nautical charts. It simply indicates that a boat doesn’t need to turn on an anchor light. It’s not a federally regulated anchorage, Havel said.
In fact, the United States Coast Guard regulations, section 110.126a, says that mariners anchoring in the Richardson Bay special anchorage should consult the applicable ordinances of the RBRA and the County of Marin.
No matter which entities rule the anchorage, there is still the paramount problem of placing 86 people, many with limited resources, into housing. Marina slips can be paid for with housing vouchers from the federal government, according to Moulton-Peters. The RBRA has some funding available to help mariners make minor repairs to their vessels to make them seaworthy, a requirement to berth in a marina. The agency will seek additional grant funding and possibly private donations.
In the meantime, the conflict between the mariners and the RBRA continues. On Monday evening, as Havel patrolled the anchorage, two skiffs manned by anchor-outs trailed behind him. With the late hour and the high tide, they were concerned that Havel might attempt to seize a boat.
Perhaps the mariners can rest easy until Oct. 15, 2023, the first tick mark on the boat-removal timeline.
“Our primary focus of enforcement right now and for the foreseeable future is to limit new boats to staying 72 hours,” Moulton-Peters said. “We want to keep from adding any more permanent residents on the water. Curtis will not post [notice to remove a boat] boats when people are living in the [homeless] encampment. And boats that are occupied by people going to the grocery store or doing whatever they’re doing will also not be posted.”
Anchor-out Arthur Bruce is not convinced. He says the RBRA has been singing that refrain since he arrived on the anchorage six years ago.
“The RBRA and BCDC are accountable for the atrocities they’re hypocritically thrusting upon the most vulnerable citizens,” Bruce said. “It’s unjust, it’s immoral, it’s un-American, it’s illegal, it’s unconscionable.”