Questions posed to Nathan Torgelson (Director of DCI)
As specialists in the sales of Floating On-Water Residences (FOWR), we would like to be able to explain the regulations regarding permitting requirements for FOWRs to our clients. In this regard, we recently asked Nathan Torgelson, Director of Department of Construction and Inspections (DCI) the following questions:
Assuming no change to overwater coverage, an expansion of 120 sq. ft. or less requires a shoreline exemption permit, correct?
Assuming no change to overwater coverage, the replacement of a hull as a repair requires a shoreline exemption permit, correct?
Replacing a FOWR requires a substantial shoreline development permit, correct?
The FOWR being replaced must either be destroyed, placed on land, or moved outside of Seattle Waters, correct?
These answers represent a change in policy that previously allowed for replacement FOWR’s to be sold outside of Seattle waters. If you are constructing houseboat replacements, new hulls, or making significant repairs, you need to read and understand these rules. When in doubt, contact Department of Construction and Inspections directly.
Nathan Torgelson responded as follows:
As you may be aware, SDCI has recently reviewed the code language related to FOWRs and House Barges due to the notable increase in permitting activity, particularly for replacing FOWRs. Further review of the code language with the Seattle Law Department as well as the Department of Ecology has resulted in an adjustment to our processes to better align with the specific code language that governs these over-water uses. The information below is intended to answer the questions you’ve raised.
Some limited activities related to FOWRs and House Barges may qualify for a shoreline exemption. These activities include:
Normal maintenance and repair to prevent the decline, lapse, or cessation of the floating structure from its original condition. However, the code specifically states that replacement of FOWRs and House Barges is not the normal method of repair which means that replacement will not be considered “normal maintenance and repair” but instead will require additional permits (Refer to the specific code sections: Exemptions SMC 23.60A.020. B and C.1; FOWR code section SMC 23.60A.203.C.1.a.; and Floating Structures and House Barge code section SMC 23.60A.204.C.1.a.)
Other activities or changes to FOWRs and House Barges that will require a shoreline substantial development permit, include but are not limited to:
Expansions of the living area of a FOWR or House Barge (FOWR/Barge) that do not meet any shoreline exemption criteria. It is important to note that expansions of more than 120 sf of living area will trigger a requirement to either hook the FOWR/Barge up to the City sewer system or retain graywater until it can be pumped out.
Replacement of a hull of a FOWR/Barge
Replacement of a FOWR/Barge
Any other work that does not specifically qualify for a Shoreline Exemption
It is important to note that the shoreline code language specifically states that exemptions should be construed narrowly (SMC 23.60A.020.B), and that any part of a proposal or activity that is not specifically eligible for an exemption will trigger a shoreline substantial development permit. In addition, one goal of the overall FOWR/Barge rules is to ensure that the number of FOWRS on the water before July 1, 2014 does not increase. In Seattle, this includes registered House Barges that were on the water before July 1990. As part of the shoreline substantial development permit review to replace a verified FOWR/Barge, SDCI will need information about what will occur with the existing verified FOWR/Barge that is being replaced. Seattle’s code and its supporting state law, in the Shoreline Management Act, RCW 90.58, were written to legalize existing floating residences as of the July 1, 2014 date. State law and City code direct us to ensure that the result of a replacement process is no net increase in the number of floating residences. This requirement applies statewide.
Some options for what could occur with the existing FOWR/Barge being replaced could be:
Demolish the FOWR/Barge and provide evidence of the demolition such as photos of the FOWR/Barge prior to demolition and photos while demolition occurs. Demolition over water is not allowed.
Decommission the FOWR/Barge in a manner that it can no longer be used as an on-water structure or craft. An example of this is drilling holes in the hull so the structure will no longer float and moving the structure to dry land. This option would also require submitting a permit from SDCI, if relocated to dry land in Seattle, or a permit from the jurisdiction with authority to approve land use actions for the property where the decommissioned FOWR/Barge will be moved to, to document that it will be a legal structure on land in its new location. Once a structure is verified as a FOWR/Barge, it cannot be “unverified” and remain in state (or City) waters as a vessel instead.
Sell the FOWR/Barge to another verified FOWR/Barge owner in Seattle, who will be required to apply for a shoreline substantial development permit for the replacement of their existing FOWR/Barge; that new owner must then demonstrate what will occur with their existing FOWR/Barge so that there is no net increase in the number of floating residences in Washington state.
Sell the FOWR/Barge to another party outside of Seattle and obtain a permit from the jurisdiction where the FOWR/Barge moves to, indicating the FOWR/Barge is legal in its new location on dry land.
I hope this information is helpful in explaining the permit process for proposed actions that would change, modify, or replace a verified FOWRs or House Barge. We are planning to develop a “TIP” so that this information is clear and readily available to the general public.