EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — New Jersey’s only houseboat community has yet to recover from Hurricane Sandy, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could have even more dire consequences for its residents.
“People would move back, but they’re not allowed to live there,” said Jimmy Brodsky, a 70-year-old Jitney driver who spends eight months a year on Dollar Affair, his floating abode at the Sea Village Marina. “There’s no electric or sewers until the docks are replaced.”
But the needed repairs aren’t the only change the community faces following the court’s determination that stationary houseboats are “homes” governed by local statutes, not boats subject to federal admiralty law. The ruling could change how they’re regulated and taxed. It could also make it difficult for owners to secure loans and for prospective buyers to obtain mortgages.
Egg Harbor Township is in the unique position of being the only municipality in the state to deal with the fallout. A 1985 statewide ban on stationary houseboats means Sea Village Marina, which sits off the Margate Causeway, is a one of a kind community.
“We can’t even brainstorm with another municipality,” said Township Administrator Peter Miller.
Miller said the township is still considering whether it needs to begin collecting property taxes — currently, houseboat owners pay dock fees to the marina management — or enforcing construction codes. A decision on those issues and more could be some time to come, he said.
“I know we’re going to proceed cautiously,” he said. “Whatever we do that’s different from what we have been doing since 1985, there’s probably going to be a challenge to it.”
Also in question is whether the newly-defined “homes” would be affected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood maps and guidelines for raising homes to federally prescribed elevations.
Because of the state regulations concerning houseboats, Miller said, the children who live on them aren’t eligible for admission to the school district. And despite extending fire and police services to the inhabitants, trash collection was left to marina management.
“(The residents) are transients, so to speak,” he said. “Even though the same boats have been there since the first day.”
Don Parkhurst, senior vice president of SunTrust Bank’s marine and RV finance division, said the court decision has led to a wave of uncertainty among lenders. That will likely make it more difficult to finance floating domiciles, regardless of whether they’re mobile.
“Attorneys are looking at houseboat lending and asking if this is something we can continue to do,” he said.
Chief among lenders’ concerns, Parkhurst said, is the possibility that new regulation could nullify current houseboat mortgages; or that boat owners could invalidate their loans by removing their means of propulsion, their masts or motors.
“It creates an unknown for a potential lender and lenders don’t like that,” he said.
The National Marine Banker’s Association’s legislative committee, which Parkhurst chairs, filed an amicus brief with the court opposing the changes. Parkhurst said the lawsuit — prompted by the seizure and destruction of a houseboat by officials in Riviera Beach, Fla. — could have resulted in a narrow decision, but the court’s majority opinion introduced a great deal of ambiguity.
Houseboats, and Sea Village Marina in particular, have long existed under a complex legal status.
New Jersey’s ban on stationary houseboats resulted in Sea Village Marina being the only houseboat community of its kind in the state. Its floating residences — built by original owner John Best’s defunct Mays Landing shipyard — were grandfathered into the new statutes.
At the time of the ban, state officials said it was to prevent “floating villages” from cropping up across the state, leading to environmental issues and taking dock space away from other recreational boaters. Best, who fought the ban for years and who died in 2003 at age 70, told the Associated Press that it unfairly targeted his business.
''What the DEP has said is that you can live in any boat in the state of New Jersey as long as it's not built by John Best,'' he said.
In the early 1990s, Best faced a court order to clean up a leaky sewer system. More recently, U.S. marshals seized several houseboats in 2009 after a number of tenants refused to pay dock fees. Some residents had placed the fees in escrow, citing a lack of dredging and other repairs.
A houseboat owner since 1984, Brodsky said he stayed because of how beautiful the community is—and how beautiful it can become. He said conditions had been improving in the years before Hurricane Sandy’s landfall last October.
“The water line was put in the week before (the storm),” he said. “After the place was destroyed, they wound up putting in the fire hydrants.”
The storm damage may have the unintended benefit of expediting the repair and renovation process, Brodsky said. He’s optimistic that the current investors will finish the job they started. The marina’s current management did not respond to requests for comment.
“Now, because everyone’s not there, they can do it all at once,” he said.
Brodsky said he’s hopeful he can return to his home and his community once the necessary repairs are complete. He’s ambivalent, but optimistic, about what the court decision could mean.
“Theoretically, if Egg Harbor Township wanted to build homes (there), they can’t kick you out and say, ‘you’re a boat,’ but who knows?” he said. “As a home, they might be able to tax us in the water — we have no idea.”
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