SOMERS – If you could own 112 feet of Flathead Lake lakeshore for, say, $36,000 – and lakeshore on Flathead can go for anywhere from 10 to 100 times that amount – would you jump at the chance?
Mind you, there are strings attached. And probably anchors, too.
But if you don’t mind the fact that your property may not always stand still, there is nothing to stop you from making your “lake place” a cabin built to float. What’s more, while people on shore pay significant amounts of property taxes annually, you’ll get by with whatever the cost is to license your houseboat.
Two houseboat owners – one’s more of a “house barge,” with 1,100 square feet of living space atop its pontoons – have figured that out, and their vessels are now a permanent, year-round presence in Somers Bay.
That doesn’t sit well with some people on shore, who worry about everything from potential problems with sewage breaches, to the fact that there’s nothing that says another 20, or 50, or 1,000 people couldn’t do the same thing.
One of those with concerns, James Thompson of Somers, has submitted a petition asking the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to regulate barges and houseboats on Flathead Lake.
FWP commissioners will discuss it at their monthly meeting Thursday morning in Helena, but it’s unclear whether anything will come of it.
The agenda item specifically notes that “under current law, the commission does not have the authority to make rules to regulate floating houses or limit the amount of time that a boat may be anchored in water.”
Whether any agency has the authority is questionable.
“If you look through the regulations, there’s nothing specific to houseboats,” says FWP Warden Capt. Lee Anderson. “That’s where it falls into that no-man’s land. Nobody has the clear authority to deal with that. They skirt the authority of every regulatory agency we have.”
Thompson Smith, chairman of the Flathead Basin Commission, advised Gov. Steve Bullock of the situation in a Nov. 9 letter.
FWP, Smith said, huddled with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and Flathead County officials last month to discuss the issue.
“While all of these agencies have indirect authority, none have the express authority to regulate houseboats,” Smith told the governor.
The state of Montana owns the land and water below the low-water mark on Flathead Lake’s north half, and DNRC can enforce regulations related to navigable waters and construction permits for permanent structures, he said.
“However, DNRC lacks authority to regulate houseboats with non-permanent anchors,” Smith wrote. “DEQ can enforce state water quality standards for discharges, but if the houseboats dispose of waste properly, DEQ has no recourse. Flathead County has no enforcement authority as the lake is not zoned and the Lakeshore Protection Act pertains solely to the construction of permanent structures. FWP regulates boating safety, not residential use.”
In the wake of the concerns, DNRC has implemented new guidelines that will require any boat anchored or moored below the low-water mark to relocate at least 500 feet every 14 days, according to spokesman John Grassy.
But where that low-water mark is “is difficult to nail down to a perfect line,” Anderson says, “and it’s real difficult on the north shore, where it’s a very gradual drop-off. On the north shore, some private property goes out into the lake – sometimes way out – so some boats may be on private land, and some may be on DNRC land. It’s something that would have to be surveyed.”
Thompson, the Somers resident, does not own lakeshore, but his home overlooks the bay where the two houseboats sit.
Both are homemade, built by local resident Chris Levengood, Thompson said, and are now owned by other people. Both use their pontoons as holding tanks for sewage, and in the case of the larger barge, that’s up to 8,000 gallons of sewage being stored in containers floating on the lake, he added.
“You can see it sink lower and lower into the lake as the pontoons fill up,” Thompson said. “We did get DEQ to go out and inspect it, and they wrote a letter saying by the end of October it had to be pumped out. (The owner) did do that.”
The smaller houseboat has been anchored in front of four small islands in Somers Bay for about five years, according to Thompson. The larger one showed up about 18 months ago and is “secured tightly to pilings in open water.”
That’s according to VRBO.com, where the houseboat is offered as a vacation rental by its owner, Ben Lard.
“If you have been on a typical houseboat before this is nothing like it,” the VRBO posting says. “This amazing house is full size with livable space being 24 feet wide and 50 feet long. The main room has a full size kitchen with a large center island and all appliance(s). The living room has a large sectional couch and both a wood burning fireplace and a propane fireplace. It is completed by a 55-inch LCD smart TV with DirecTV and surrounded by breathtaking views of the lake and mountains.”
There’s also a large bathroom, a washer and dryer, a master bedroom with a private entrance, sleeping accommodations for a total of eight people, a hot tub, waterslide, plus a large generator and solar panels to provide electrical power.
What it doesn’t have is a motor or sail – it was towed into its current spot, and can’t be moved unless it is towed by another vessel – which throws another twist into everything.
“Is it a vessel, or is it not a vessel?” Anderson says. “What it really is, is a floating barge, not a vessel. That’s another nuance.”
Lard, the owner, did not respond to a message sent through the VRBO website this week.
He rents the property for $300 a night, with a minimum three-night stay.
There are other houseboats on Flathead Lake, but Anderson knows of no others that aren’t tied up to private docks or kept at marinas when they’re not in use.
Thompson says he has nothing against houseboats dropping anchor and people spending a weekend, or even a two-week vacation, in one spot.
“But when they can pull up in front of anybody’s property, it seems there should be some regulation as to how long they can stay,” he says. “These are sitting in front of multi-million-dollar properties. People can camp in a state park for two weeks, but then they have to leave. Maybe the same rules should apply, rather than people assuming permanent control over a particular piece of water.”
Thompson also thinks the boats should be required to move at least two miles, not 500 feet, so that they’re not just moving around the same bay and occupying the same viewshed.
“I see a situation developing that could get a lot worse,” he says. “Once we had one, then we got two. What’s to stop someone from saying, ‘Gee, what a good idea – I could get two or three houseboats and rent them out.’ When we’ve got a bay-full of houseboats, what are we going to do then?
“Eventually it could look like Lake Union (Washington) or Sausalito (California), where people also thought this was a great idea and now the houseboats go bumper-to-bumper.”
It’s not just houseboats that can apparently take up permanent residence, especially in the lake’s more protected bays (Flathead’s famous storms make it more problematic in open water). Cabin cruisers and large sailboats could be turned into similar “lake places,” Thompson says, and used more as living spaces than as watercraft.
“There’s a similar issue with a sailboat that’s anchored in front of homes in Lakeside,” he adds. Residents there, he says, have been told there don’t appear to be any rules preventing it.
The same holds true on the south half of Flathead Lake, where the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have some jurisdiction – and where Lard’s barge bounced around to various locations under previous owners before it was towed to Somers.
“There are no rules dictating the anchoring of a boat,” says Dan Lipscomb, shoreline protection administrator for the tribes. “We don’t regulate boat traffic, just structures like docks and shore stations.”
Lipscomb says he fielded complaints when the larger houseboat was on the south half of Flathead, and is surprised there haven’t been more instances of people using live-aboard boats as a way to own a place on the lake.
It’s much more common on Lake Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, where actual lakeshore is also out of most people’s price range. But Lipscomb guesses the fact that Flathead’s level fluctuates more than those also plays a factor.
Flathead is drawn down 10 feet in the winter. The two boats in Somers Bay either rest on the lakebed, or in a small amount of water and/or ice, when that happens, Thompson says.
The smaller of the two, he says, drops steel pipes down into the lake bed when the lake is at full pool to hold it in place.
Houseboats only rarely come up for sale on and around Flathead, but a check of Craigslist found the example that began this story, on Lake Pend Oreille.
There’s a 31-year-old houseboat for sale there for $36,000. Your 112 feet of “lakeshore” would come in the form of 44 feet on one side of the boat, 44 feet on the other, and 12 feet across both the bow and stern.
It also comes with no trailer, meaning you’d also have to hire a flatbed truck to haul it the 105 miles, and cranes at both ends, one to take it out of Pend Oreille, and one to put it in at Flathead.
Other live-aboard options could come even cheaper and less complicated, and Thompson hopes the state acts before more show up in Somers and other bays around the lake.
Given the lack of regulations, it will probably take legislative action, he says, and he and others are working with state Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and state Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, on the issue.
Smith, in his letter to Bullock, said the Flathead Basin Commission would like to work with the legislators “to support a bill that would empower an agency to study the issues associated with houseboats and propose regulatory, administrative solutions to this issue.”
Thompson said the Flathead Lakers are also concerned, especially with the potential problems that sewage on the boats could pose to water quality.