Upfront: Under threat

Illegal and abandoned vessels in Richardson's Bay rock the boat

by Peter Seidman

Ever since the 1800s, Richardson’s Bay has been a safe anchorage for vessels ducking out of the weather of San Francisco Bay. Whaling ships anchored there, as did ships plying the trading routes of the West Coast. Today, this safe anchorage is under threat, burdened by its very value as a safe harbor, as well as inadequate enforcement of illegally moored vessels and vessel owners who dump derelict boats.

The bay’s history is marked by the jostling of often-disparate interests. That jostling has at times erupted into outright open confrontations between boats anchored in the bay and law enforcement representatives seeking to clear out the anchorage of illegal boats. But through the years, the so-called anchor-outs also have become a part of the county – an intrinsic element of the waterfront as legitimate as any other along the shoreline.

But things are getting out of hand, in large part because anchorages around the bay are closing and vessel owners are coming to Richardson’s Bay as a last refuge. Unfortunately, vessel owners are also abandoning derelict boats at an increasing rate. The agency in charge of administering the anchorage, Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), has become incapable of keeping up with the number of abandoned vessels.

That issue is one of the reasons for a recent workshop that the agency held to begin mapping out a plan to deal with the issues facing the bay. In addition to the increasing number of abandoned vessels, the environmental quality of the water and its flora and fauna are issues of concern.

Along with trying to create a plan to take Richardson’s Bay – a federally designated anchorage – into the future in good shape, the agency and those who support creating an overall plan for the bay also acknowledge that a key element to be addressed is the people who have come to call it home. To a large extent, tackling the issues surrounding the permanent, or semi-permanent anchor-outs, deals with interrelated issues of the homeless. People living on the bay have vessels that they call home, but some of them also face food insecurity, health issues and the threat of their vessels breaking moorings during winter storms.

Arriving at a comprehensive plan to deal with the issues of the bay will involve listening to and meeting the needs of several different communities, says Ben Berto, clerk to the RBRA board. The first step in that listening process took place at the workshop at the Bay Model.

When it comes to the issue of a homeless population seeking a haven on the water of Richardson’s Bay, the issues today echo the issues that have existed for decades. In modern history, during the 1960s and 1970s, the Sausalito waterfront was home to an eclectic bunch. Alan Watts lived on a houseboat, although it was far from a low-ticket anchor-out. The bay was home to a variety of art-inspired craft, giving Sausalito a reputation as having a quaint waterfront. Residents who lived up in the Sausalito hills valued the views from their panoramic windows.

The ultimate expression of the art-meets-waterfront-mid-century gestalt was embodied in a derelict dry dock beached on the bay side of the channel off of Sausalito, and left to decay. Students from the San Francisco Art Institute looked at the sides of the massive dry dock, which was maybe two stories tall, and ascertained that it would make an excellent outdoor gallery. No one knew who actually did the deed, but reproductions of Gauguin paintings went up on the Sausalito side of the dry dock.

The dry dock definitely increased the quaintness quotient of the bay, but it also represented a serious safety hazard. It was removed eventually. The hazards it posed are some of the same hazards that exist today in the bay. No single vessel abandoned in the bay is nearly as large as the dry dock, but the sheer number of abandoned vessels is overwhelming the BRBA, which is responsible for removing them.

Vessels like the dry dock and the patched-together “art boats” are cute and quaint “only until you see the first sheen on the water from a hazmat spill,” Berto says. “Then you have to decide whether the quaint vessel is worth environmental damage and safety issues.” Berto notes that winter storms generally pack winds from the south blowing into the bay. That means that vessels inadequately moored tend to blow to the Belvedere and Tiburon shorelines. He recalls a contractor on the shore who tried to intercept a loose vessel and was killed.

Adequately mooring vessels is the kind of nuts and bolts issue that mariners can understand and administrators can oversee using objective measures of success. The more amorphous and difficult issues involved with meeting the needs of people present different and much more complex challenges.

That was the situation when former Supervisor Charles McGlashan tried to tackle the challenges of anchor-outs on the bay. It was circa 2009, a few decades after the situation over illegal live-aboards flared into what was called The Houseboat Wars, had calmed. Only about 40 boats were live-aboards then, but the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) wanted them gone.

McGlashan proposed a plan to create a mooring field with about 100 to 120 mooring buoys. Boats could hook onto the buoys instead of dropping anchor and harming the marine environment. McGlashan was proud of his plan, but BCDC stopped him cold. BCDC said the mooring field might be a good idea, but first the county had to remove the 40 live-aboards. The law allows boaters to stay for 72 hours in the bay. The county sheriff said that if the county forced the live-aboards to move, they could simply up-anchor and move and drop anchor again for another 72 hours – all legal.

McGlashan continued to push his plan, but his efforts failed to achieve a successful result at BCDC. The mooring field, he said, would provide safe harbor for the live-aboards and the county would know who and where they were moored. No new live-aboards would be allowed in his plan, and their numbers would gradually decline.

The live-aboards are low-income residents, McGlashan said, and forcing them off the bay would push them onto the street as additions to the homeless population. “I find that inappropriate from a moral standpoint,” he said.

The issues haven’t changed much. But the numbers have. Other anchorages around the bay have closed, putting pressure on Richardson’s Bay. Today it is one of the last remaining anchorages on San Francisco Bay. “Redwood City cleared its sloughs of anchored vessels in 1997,” according to a Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency statement. “The closure of Alviso Slough followed, then Clipper Cove at Treasure Island, the delta shore of Contra Costa County and most recently, the Oakland Estuary in 2013.”

In a 2008 survey, the RBRA counted 98 vessels anchored in the bay. Between 2008 and 2014, the agency “abated 484 derelict or abandoned vessels,” according to their statement. In 2014 there were 205 vessels anchored on Richardson’s Bay, “a 209-percent increase over 2008.”

The increased number of vessels – and the cost associated with removing derelict boats, as well as cleaning out debris – are making the job of the RBRA unsustainable. The workshop was the first step in gathering members of the various communities on and around the bay to discuss issues and options. It’s a daunting challenge, especially given the relatively small budget of the agency, which had a budget of $467,548 in fiscal year 2014-15. The agency runs “a pretty tight” ship, according to Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears, who serves as chair of RBRA’s board. The agency is a joint-powers body comprising five members representing jurisdictions around Richardson’s Bay. From 2014 to 2015, the state contributed $200,000 to the total budget of the agency. The rest came from member dues.

In addition to the increasing number of abandoned vessels on the bay, the agency is faced with another challenge: The state is reducing the amount of funding that it sends to the agency. Between 2008 and 2014, the state increased its funding from $120,000 to $180,000 a year for the disposal of vessels. But starting in 2016, the state will reduce its contribution to $120,000. And that comes as the number of abandoned vessels keeps increasing.

Dealing with the realities of abandoned vessels and reduced funding comes along with the challenges of continuing protection of the environment on and under the bay. It’s an important link in the West Coast flyway and a key in the health of fish-populations. And recognizing the importance of living conditions and opportunities for anchor-outs must be an essential element in a plan for the bay, say Sears and Berto.

To manage the anchorage, we need to pay attention to a variety of users,” Sears says. The job of managing the anchorage is particularly difficult for the agency because it lacks teeth to enforce the prohibition against vessels remaining at anchor illegally after 72 hours.

A captain of a vessel can request permission from the harbor administrator to anchor for 72 hours. Anchoring longer than that time period is forbidden without obtaining additional permission. But there’s a fly in the ointment: The RBRA currently has no procedure in place to secure additional permission for anchoring longer than 72 hours. That means that, technically, every vessel on the bay staying longer than 72 hours is on the bay illegally.

It’s very frustrating,” Sears says. The enabling legislation for the agency sets the policy, but no enforcement process goes along with the policy. The agency formed in 1985, after tensions on the waterfront had ebbed and flowed for decades. The agency was – and is – an attempt to bring some regulation to a kind of “Wild West” on the water. In the words of Berto, “Our agency to date has not been in a position to administer a permit program. We hope that as part of a comprehensive management program that we will be able to sort out the length-of-stay question and concern.”

Berto notes that the agency “wants to welcome visiting boaters, who “make the San Francisco Bay a fabulous place to visit.” But, he adds, “Staying [longer than 72 hours] violates any number of state and federal regulations.” The policy regarding length of stay versus the non-enforcement issue is just one part of a larger seascape of administrative issues on Richardson Bay. The federally designated anchorage has no upper limit to the number of vessels that may anchor within its boundaries off of Sausalito.

The task of administering the anchorage is completely in local hands. “We are aware of the situation [with vessels overstaying],” Berto says, “but we are not enforcing it. It is a completely haphazard, unorganized anchorage.” A sympathetic ear but a rejection of financial support from BCDC and other agencies that might provide funds to help the RBRA cope with the challenges it faces doesn’t make it any easier.

The workshop was designed to open a dialogue to collect comments and suggestions about what the various Richardson’s Bay communities would like to see. The agency board will meet May 7 to discuss the workshop results. Interested members of all of the communities can access workshop information and meeting agendas at the agency’s website at rbra.ca.gov/index.htm. Anyone interested can also get on the agency’s mailing list.

The task for the agency is so large and the issues are so encompassing, that it might be reasonable to tackle issues in bite-size pieces, Sears says, to deal with smaller things and make some incremental, initial progress. One of those things could be providing debris boxes or garbage receptacles for people coming in from their boats on the bay.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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