Representatives of the owners of two houseboats that have taken up permanent, year-round residence in Somers Bay on Flathead Lake defended their right to be there Thursday.
And, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners indicated it will take action by the Montana Legislature before FWP or any other agency can regulate them.
“My sense is the situation is not going to disappear, it’s just going to grow,” commission chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston said during the board’s monthly meeting.
The first houseboat arrived in the bay three years ago, according to testimony at the meeting, and a second, considerably larger one – with 1,100 square feet of living space sitting atop its pontoons that is rented out to vacationers by its owner – showed up in the last year to year and a half.
There are other houseboats on Flathead, but they all tie up to private docks or at marinas when they’re not in use. These two use various methods to remain in place in Somers Bay, and sit on or near the lake bed when the water level is drawn down in the winter.
Somers resident James Thompson asked the FWP Commission to take up the issue.
He and others are worried that – with no regulations to prevent it and lakeshore prices that are out of reach of most people – Somers and other bays on Flathead will fill up with even more year-round houseboats that are used as stationary floating lake cabins more than summer watercraft.
They have other concerns too, including the potential of sewage breaches.
Tony Hill of Columbia Falls, speaking on behalf Tony Price, the owner of the smaller vessel, said the houseboat has been on Flathead Lake for 30 years. It and the larger houseboat were two of seven built by the same local man, and five are still in use on Flathead, he said.
To the best of his knowledge, Hill said, there have been no issues with any of them.
“Mr. Price has been inspected” by both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, “and passed just fine,” Hill said.
“We understand the complaints,” Hill said, “but ‘ugly’ … I for one see nothing ugly. It’s a well-kept, well-built houseboat.”
Both the Somers Bay houseboats use their pontoons as sewage holding tanks. Price has his pumped out regularly, Hill said, and the chances of them leaking are small “because of the thickness of the steel.”
“They have not leaked, they have not been a problem and it is not an eyesore,” Hill said. The houseboat is lighted at night during boating season, and “to not see it, you’d have to be blind, or going way too fast.”
“I’d ask the commission to consider that it’s never been a problem,” Hill said. “Now it’s only a problem with people wealthier than Mr. Price is.”
Two Lakeside residents spoke against the houseboats via teleconference from FWP Region 1 headquarters in Kalispell.
“My biggest concern is for how long they can stay in one place,” said Bob Balding. “Otherwise, we’re going to end up with a situation like Sausalito Bay (California), which is covered in houseboats because there’s no regulation.”
Rex Boller said a sailboat called “Hocus Pocus” anchors offshore near Lakeside from early May to late September, and while it is not necessarily used as a floating lake house, it “anchors for free, pays no permits or real estate taxes, and violates the views” of shoreline property owners.
You have free articles remaining.
The boat broke free of its anchor in a storm a few years ago, and damaged the public dock, according to Boller.
“There are safety and sanitation issues,” he went on, and without regulation, there will be “more and more abuse,” he predicted.
“It’s us property owners who are being abused, and it’s not fair,” Boller said.
A third Lakeside resident, Darcy Lard – mother of Ben Lard, who owns the larger houseboat in Somers Bay – was also at Region 1 headquarters, and sought to correct information about her son’s vessel.
It does have a small engine, contrary to reports that it has no propulsion, she said, and has a larger motor that is “in repair.”
DEQ did inspect the barge-like houseboat, which includes a living room, full kitchen, master bedroom, washer and dryer, two fireplaces, hot tub and sleeping accommodations for eight, Lard said.
“But they did not demand (the sewage) be pumped out,” Lard said. “Ben volunteered to have it pumped … safely and correctly.”
Six thousand gallons of sewage was removed from the pontoons, she said, not 8,100 as some people have said.
“There are several barges on the lake,” Lard added. “The S.S. Hodge (a dock-building barge) operates for commercial purposes and its owner lives on it. It’s going to be difficult to start regulating one type of barge over another.”
Thompson, the Somers man who petitioned the FWP Commission to take up the issue, was out of state Thursday and could not attend the meeting in Helena, or the teleconference participation in Kalispell.
Commissioner Gary Wolfe of Missoula, who has spoken with Thompson, said it would be wrong to label him “anti-houseboat.”
“The analogy he used with me is it’s like camping on public lands,” Wolfe said. There’s a 14-day limit for camping on most Montana public lands, including state parks, and “his concern is that these houseboats are permanently anchored” on public water.
Thompson told the Missoulian earlier this week he’d like to see a similar two-week limit for houseboats, with a requirement that they move at least two miles away for two weeks to prevent them from remaining in the same bay for extended periods.
Vermillion, the commission chairman, said he was especially interested with the larger boat that is offered for rent on VRBO.com for $300 a night with a three-night minimum.
“When it becomes a commercial venture that is affecting public property, that’s certainly a valid concern,” Vermillion said.
He also referenced the Bakken boom, when oilfield workers facing a lack of housing in western North Dakota moved campers and trailers onto fishing access sites and public wildlife areas in eastern Montana and stayed for months at a time.
“The commission put regulations in place” to deal with that, Vermillion said, but “we do need the authority to do anything” about houseboats on public water. Cabin cruisers and larger sailboats could also be similarly used.
“You have capable and powerful legislators” in the Flathead area, he added. “Have them give us the tools to help you.”