Docktown's 'Floating Homes' in Calif. in Limbo

(Credit Kirstina Sangsahachart/Palo Alto Daily News)

Not quite boats or houses, the "floating homes" of Docktown are home to at least 60 households in Redwood City, Calif., a city that is trying to balance the interests of the community and the landowner of the property.

A task force will meet on Thursday night to help determine the future of the 100-acre property, 20 acres of which are owned by Redwood City and the remainder of which a private landowner hopes to develop into condominiums.

Orelene Chartain, 65, has been a resident of Docktown for four years but has been active in the yacht club for 13 years. She and her husband, a 70-year old retired contractor, downsized to their floating home after their children grew up. The home was a "fixer-upper," she said.

PHOTOS: Docktown Marina Residents Live in 'Floating Homes'

"I'm a sailor. Our whole family sails and we love the water," she said.

The Chartains live in a two-story "floating home" with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and all the amenities of a traditional home. The home has electricity, a sewage system and a dishwasher, washer and dryer.

After years of management by a private operator, Fred Earnhardt, Earnhardt's tenancy ended in February and operations were handed over to Redwood City, which owns the water that flows through the marina, three months ago.

Now the city wants to offer Docktown residents a one-year licensing agreement, after previously living month-to-month, but residents are pushing for a longer-term solution so they won't be evicted, as first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.

"We feel that by signing this agreement we may be giving up some of our floating home rights," said Chartain, a certified public accountant.

Chartain said she pays property taxes to San Mateo County, but she and the other residents are treated as owners of vessels instead of homes.

"We're happy about the year agreement, but we're not happy about the fact that it's not a lease. It's a licensing agreement and they can ask us to leave at any time."

The ideal situation for Docktown residents, Chartain said would be for the city to build another, innovative marina, like those in Amsterdam, to which they could move.

"We envision a state-of-the-art floating community where people would look at Redwood City as a leader and be proud of what they've done with the resources around them," she said.

The residents pay berth fees for their vessels of about $6 per lineal foot plus live-aboard rent of $325 a month. In turn, the city can provide residents with water, electricity and connection to a sewage system.

Chartain said she is not complaining about the fees, though some residents do. Though there are affluent pockets of Redwood City, Chartain said Docktown residents represent a diverse demographic, including venture capitalists, taxi drivers, hairdressers and medical doctors.

She said the city has already improved the area, some parts of which were previously "derelict."

"We are happy to see improvements and we realize they need money to do that," she said.

Docktown residents try to do their part in helping keep up the area and say they are conscious of the environment around them. They plan a trash pick-up four times a year in the water, helping remove debris after heavy rainfall.

Chartain is part of the 15-member task force that will meet for the first time on Thursday to study the area and hopefully help residents, the city and the landowner come to an agreement about its future.

The private landowner did not immediately return a request for comment.

"My position as a person on the task force is to try to find common ground and come up with a win-win situation for everybody," Chartain said.

The city hopes to come up with a plan for the area in a year, but Chartain said that is "optimistic."

Bill Ekern, community development director for Redwood City, said the city is not permitted to offer residential leases due to the charter that gave the city the land.

Ekern recognizes that if Docktown were to shut down, the residents would have few or no places to go.

"The problem is that people have immobilized their boats or built structures on the water that cannot be moved. In the San Francisco Bay, there are fundamentally no places where people can live on the water. It's a very, very limited amount. Each of the marinas allow a limited number to live there. It becomes problematic."

Chartain said the closest livable marina is near AT&T Park in San Francisco, on the other side of the bay.

"If we were able to get a spot there, it would mean disrupting our lives," she said, explaining that all of her accounting clients live in Redwood City and she hopes to retire in a few years. "Being 65, it's not a time in my life when I want to do a new start."

As Docktown's new operator, the city is still determining how much it costs to manage the neighborhood. But Ekern says, "We're not making money."

The city also has not determined the exact number of residents. Chartain said there are about 60 live-aboard vessels, but the city has said there are about 145 slips, or berths, available.

Ekern uses his public works staff for maintenance of the area and they have a marina manager to resolve certain issues.

Before the city and the landowner come up with another plan, Ekern said he hopes residents sign the one-year licensing agreement.

"They're afraid about losing their homes. That's right now outside of our control. I can't guarantee anybody that you can stay, because I don't have an agreement that allows you time to stay," he said.