Their homes are routinely battered and beaten by wintertime waves rolling across Commencement Bay. From time to time mudslides cut off dry land access to Tacoma. Fires erupt in the neighboring woods. Errant cars careening down the road collide with their homes and garages. And drifting barges and tugboats make firewood of their over-water porches.
But on a warm summertime afternoon, there’s seemingly no better place to be, no better view, no better locale for communing with nature than on the deck of a unique group of homes strung along a narrow strip of land along Tacoma’s Marine View Drive.
Barb Berntsen has lived in a crab-shack-turned-view-home on the water off Marine View Drive for three decades. There is no place she’d rather live. But there’s trouble in paradise.
Early this spring, the Port of Tacoma presented the seven owners of the nine waterfront homes along Marine View Drive with a proposed lease agreement.
The homes on that land are owned by the residents, but the land is owned by the port. Homeowners rent the land for about $150 to $200 a month, on a month-to-month basis just as the previous owner did for years.
In the seven years since the port bought the narrow, 17-acre parcel of land, the landlord-tenant relationship hasn’t been formalized.
Homeowners and the port have periodically discussed the relationship but have never come to a formal agreement. In 2008, the port made a general offer to buy their homes. The residents didn’t make any sale proposals of their own. The issue faded.
Then, in April, the port presented residents with a formal lease. It asked them to sign and return it by May 1.
“The lease was 30 pages long. It was designed for commercial tenants,” said Janice Brevik, 60, who has owned a home along the waterfront strip on the east side of the Tideflats since she was 23.
That lease contained many provisions the residents say are unacceptable.
• The port would be required to give homeowners only a 30-day notice to terminate the lease, and 90 days to move or demolish their homes.
• Only owners can occupy the homes – no subleases allowed.
• The lease would terminate if the homes are sold or passed on to relatives as an inheritance.
For Brevik and other homeowners, the proposal violated the spirit of cooperation and tolerance. The proposed lease came out of nowhere, she said, and with only a brief time for discussion.
The lease proposal is part of a larger task at the port of standardizing dozens of leases on property acquired in the past few years, said Julie Collins, the port’s chief external affairs officer. The port began with its larger tenants and now has worked its way down to residential properties, she said.
The homeowners said that when the port initially proposed buying the land, officials told residents it was prepared to sign long-term rental agreements. The neighbors publicly supported the port’s purchase of the land in 2005, and backed the port’s application to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a $1.4 million grant to pay part of the $2.85 million acquisition cost.
“We’ve had many informal meetings with the port over the years here in our homes,” Berntsen said. “We’ve eaten much cheese and drunk much wine. But those people we met with are gone.”
Homeowners act as stewards of the property, Brevik said. They clean and maintain the shoreline, the narrow park and the kayak launching site nearby, built by the port.
Without homeowners, the port would have a much more difficult time managing its assets, she said.
“We hauled away a car door that fell off a scrap metal ship just the other day,” she said. “We routinely haul away truckloads of debris that’s accumulated on the shore.”
The residents who are affected by the proposed lease, speaking through Brevik, asked the port commission in late April to delay the signing deadline until Sept. 1 to allow them to find a compromise.
Port Commissioner Don Johnson said last week a resolution to the issue is long overdue.
“This is a problem that should have been resolved when the port bought the property,” Johnson said. “I want to solve this humanely, but it needs to be solved once and for all.”
Port Commission President Dick Marzano said the port has to make a clear decision both for the sake of the homeowners and the port’s larger constituency.
Both commissioners said they’re concerned that the relatively low land rents for such choice waterfront parcels could be construed as violating the state’s ban on gifting of public funds to private parties.
But Marine View Drive homeowner Sondra Purcell said the rents are reasonable considering the alternatives. The narrow piece of land, which is about 20 feet from the road to the shoreline, is too narrow for the port to lease for any other use.
The houses there now were built at a time when there were no restrictions on minimum lot sizes or over-water structures. Many were originally constructed as netsheds for fishermen or as crab shacks, where the plentiful crabs were cleaned and prepared for sale.
Marzano and Johnson both said the port has no imminent reason to seek to evict the homeowners. It’s the port’s intention, they said, to allow the existing homeowners to continue to live in their homes until they die or move out. But the port wants the option to require them to vacate.
Port official Collins quotes language from the NOAA grant application that offers some light on the port’s goal.
“Residential structures on the property are currently leased to residents existing at the time of purchase of the property,” the application reads. “As the residents move or the leases expire, the structures will not be reoccupied.
“The Port’s long term vision is to return this shoreline property to its natural, undeveloped state, with appropriate protections, and access to the general public.”
Brevik said that language doesn’t prevent the port from granting long-term leases. She said the NOAA grant also specifically talks about preserving the unique beach culture of the cluster of small, historic waterfront homes.
The port originally bought the property to serve as habitat for fish, waterfowl and marine mammals, but it has yet to create a specific mitigation plan.
Leslie Ann Rose is a Marine View Drive resident who lives adjacent to the port’s property. She is among residents who own their land but are concerned about the future of their neighborhood.
Rose also is a senior analyst with the environmental group Citizens for a Healthy Bay. Though she’s not speaking on behalf of the group, she said the site already is one of the richest sites in the area for fish and waterfowl.
The nine houses are no detriment to the site, she said.
She also worries about unintended consequences. Rose said if protecting fish and birds becomes synonymous with razing homes, the environmental movement will see a backlash, she said.
“People want to live on the water. They’ve invested a lot to build their homes there,” she said, speaking generally about waterfront property. “If the message was that people have to abandon the idea of living on the water to protect the fish and wildlife, then our efforts would suffer greatly.”
Without a multi-year lease, the danger is that homeowners will stop investing in their homes because they’re afraid the port will arbitrarily kick them out, Purcell said.
Beyond the legalities, Rose said, the port has consider the notion that too draconian a leasing agreement could destroy a neighborhood.
“We’re really kind of Mayberry here on the water. Everybody knows everybody. We have a common history. This comes down to people,” she said. “I hope the port will sit down and engage with us person to person.”email@example.com