On the legendary first Monday in October, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Other Washington will hear arguments in a Florida case with important implications for inhabitants of the most famous residences in Seattle.
The floating homes along Lake Union.
The Supremes will decide the appeal of Fane Lozman. He’s a Florida man who lost his own floating home after the City of Riviera Beach invoked federal maritime law to seize his bobbing castle for allegedly unpaid dockage fees, tow it off, sell it to itself at auction, and sink it. Lozman contends the action was retaliation for his opposition to a local real estate project. The case will be heard on October 1, the first day of the court’s new term.
As someone New To Seattle, I am interested in the local impact.
Seattle undoubtedly has the entire country’s best-known set of floating homes. Thank the fact that one was the residence of the Tom Hanks character in the wildly popular 1993 romantic comedy movie, “Sleepless in Seattle.” Collectively, floating homes in Seattle, which can be quite expensive, are tourist attractions in themselves, as I can attest from watching visitors madly taking pictures from Lake Union tour boats of young children playfully paddling in their “yards.” Floating homes are defining elements of Seattle, like the Space Needle and a lot of rain.
And as it turns out, the Seattle Floating Homes Association–yes, there is such an organization–filed a 45-page friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court case supporting Lozman, the houseboat owner. The brief, also submitted on behalf of a California owners group, hasn’t gotten any coverage in Seattle that I can find. But it makes for interesting reading.
The narrow technical question before the Supreme Court is whether a floating home not intended to be moved around is the kind of “vessel” governed by federal maritime laws. That ancient body of jurisprudence generally gives owners of such properties far fewer rights but, in the event of accident limits their liability to the value of the craft. The local government probably couldn’t have done what it did to Lozman, and certainly not as quickly, if his boat fell within the normal laws governing normal homes. You know, all that due process stuff. For more background on the case, read this story on Forbes.com.
The Seattle brief says there are 500 floating homes left in Seattle, half of them owned by members of the homeowners association. The brief quotes this snippet of Washington State law:
The legislature recognizes that existing floating homes, as part of our state’s existing houseboat communities, are an important cultural amenity and element of our maritime history. These surviving floating home communities are a linkage to the past, when our waterways were the focus of commerce, transport, and development.
The City of Seattle imposes numerous rules on floating homes, including “restrictions on the location, height, and square footage of floating homes, the distance between them, and the type and width of direct access that must be provided to a moorage walkway leading to a street.”
As you might imagine, the brief mounts a ferocious attack on the Atlanta federal appeals court decision sinking Lozman. The main argument advanced is that a floating home is not a “vessel” because it is designed to stay in one place, isn’t used for transportation, gets utilities from shore and can’t move without help. The brief both distinguishes a floating home from a houseboat, which can move from place to place under its own power, and does everything it can to liken a floating home to one anchored to solid ground.
One historic reason for the relative lack of due process involving regular boats is that they can sail away quickly to escape their creditors. (This is why the named defendant in the original Riviera Beach lawsuit was That Certain Unnamed Gray, Two-Story Vessel Approximately Fifty-Seven Feet In Length.) The Seattle brief declares this theory should not be not applicable to floating boats, “which cannot move at all without significant burden, danger and equipment.” According to the brief, most of the floating homes in Seattle are “built atop a raft of logs initially tied together decades ago.” A typical log raft weighs upwards of 20 tons.
But the Seattle brief does admit grudgingly that floating boats occasionally are towed from one place to another, and this may doom the case for the owners. That’s because of an 1851 Supreme Court case that defines “vessel” as “every description of water-craft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” The last high court decision in this area was a 2005 ruling saying that a giant dredger that with its crew could move only by being towed was a vessel–not a very good precedent for Lozman (and the Seattle owners).
Still, Supreme Court justices must have had some reason for taking the case. And the U.S. government, which is not a party, somewhat surprisingly has weighed in on the side of Lozman. So anything could happen, making for some more sleepless nights on the celebrated floating homes of Seattle.