Oct 152012

There is a nice little write up in the Sunday edition of the Key West Citizen regarding the coming Supreme Court decision over what constitutes if a floating structure is considered to be a house, like on land, or a vessel.  If you are unfamiliar with the case here are the basics:

Guy has a floating house tied up to a city marina in Riviera Beach, Florida.

City decides they want to redevelop the marina.

City tells guy house/vessel must go.

Guy protests and stops paying rent.

City declares that the floating house is a vessel and seizes said vessel…then destroys it.

Guy sues city claiming floating house was a house like on land and city had no right to seize it.

And now the court must decide what it is or isn’t.

What’s important here is the decision on what a floating house is…vessel or house.  If it is declared a vessel, then under admiralty laws, it is no different than the Fritter here.  It is a vessel despite no motor or other boaty stuff.  It floats, it is a vessel, and the city can take it for non payment of slip fees.  But, if it is declared a house structure as on land, then the city had no right to seize the property anymore than they could take a real house on land.

A lot of this stems from an infamous court case a few years back, Kelo vs New London.  In that particular case, the City of New London, Connecticut was approached by developers with a plan to redevelop the waterfront in the city.  But at the time there were a few people who owned homes there and didn’t want to leave.  The City and developers then simply seized the property under eminent domain claiming that by redevelopment, the property tax values would go up significantly, thereby benefiting the taxpayers of the city.  The Supreme Court agreed and as a result took 1000 years of common property law and rights and flushed them down the toilet.  In essence, they said you do not own your property if the government decides they can make better use of it.  Many states, including Florida, immediately enacted laws to prevent such takeovers by governments and for the most part reinstated property rights to the rightful owners.

In the case of the boat vs house, the distinction is what is at the forefront.  If the structure is indeed declared a house, then the city is screwed and they will have to compensate the guy for taking his property.  But…if indeed the house is declared a house, then that means all other similar structures, of which there are a few here in Key West, will also be considered houses, opening up the door for local governments to tax said structures the same way they tax land based property.  The structures here in Key West already pay a tangible tax but this decision could add additional taxes on them.   If indeed they are considered houses, the city, county, and other taxing authorities could also impose other fees and rules like demanding hook ups to sewers, power, and water.  It could get ugly.

On the other end though, if the structure is declared a vessel, then the city could take it, same as any other vessel under admiralty laws if the vessel is considered unsafe, abandoned, or whatever other excuse they can pull out of their ass.  Then law enforcement could also come in and start fining these vessels if they do not conform to the safety standards for their size, even though they don’t move around like a real vessel.  Any vessel not in compliance could be taken and the owner would be screwed out of their property.

No matter what the result, you can bet that the rules and regulations for live aboards is going to change significantly.  Local governments are always looking for new ways to tax something and this may be their chance no matter which way the decision goes.  Some may even just ban live aboards all together rather than fight with them although I don’t see that happening in the Keys given the large live aboard community down here.  But you never know.  Governments hate people who think outside of the hive.  They don’t like those who innovate or refuse to conform to what ever standards they believe the taxpayers should live under.  Liveaboards, full time rv’ers, tiny houses, none of those alternative ways of living sit well with the local governments who are in the back pockets of developers, power companies, and real estate brokers.

Folks like those out at Pete’s Harbor would do well to keep an eye on this case.  While the city out there hasn’t stepped in and starting stealing property under eminent domain (what laws they have in that state regarding such, I don’t know), but if there are any vessels at Pete’s that come under this pending ruling, it could be a significant factor in whatever happens out there.

Either way this decision goes down, it is going to have an impact on anyone who lives on the water, no matter what kind of vessel or structure it is.  And as with previous government decisions, this impact will not be a positive one.

Capt. Fritter

  2 Responses to “Living Aboard, Is It a Boat, or a Vessel? The Decision Looms…”

  1. words like ‘city’ and ‘structure’. they sound so impersonal don’t they.
    a city is people. there’s a PERSON behind that action.
    and a structure is someone’s HOME. whether it floats or not.
    it’s as old as time. torch the hut. wipe out this area we want the land.
    it’s beyond sad. we’ve learned nothing. . . .
    we’re still at the mercy of the ‘group.’
    maybe we’re getting a tiny taste of what the indians went through.
    what the group says goes. either way the ruling will be bad for boaties won’t it?
    when you said it was seized and then destroyed. how sad is that.
    wonder if they’ll send him a bill for the mess the destroying made. or for paying who did it.

    • We ceased being persons a long time ago. Now we are just assets, or in my case, a liability. Something for governments and corporations to exploit to the fullest and discard when our usefulness has ceased. A rant for the future, the very near future, as this farce of an “election” grows ever closer.

      C. F,