Difficult to find who makes private boat ramps safe

The Narrows Marina boat ramp was built in 1969. It is privately owned and accessible to the public year-round, 24 hours a day.

It’s not easy to find on paper. When Maria Baker, the mother of one drowning victim, went to the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s office, staff had a hard time identifying the parcel of land where her daughter died.

It also is not easy to find in person. It is surrounded by a jumble of shoreline warehouses, parking lots, private boat moorage, storage facilities and small businesses.

“I couldn’t find the location when I first came down here,” Baker said in a recent interview. “I drove around everywhere. It’s aimless.”

State officials sent The News Tribune in circles trying to pinpoint specific regulations for private boat launch facilities. Calls to many state agencies failed to identify safety standards or guidelines related to signs, lighting or other design components.

Some state officials recommended a reporter talk to Rory Calhoun, a lifelong boater who has worked at the state Recreation and Conservation Office for more than 20 years. They called him the most knowledgeable source for boat launch design.

Calhoun is an accessibility specialist for the recreation office, which administers grant money to city parks, ports and other public entities for boat-launch projects.

Calhoun said he’s “not aware of any requirements in state or federal law” related to signs, lighting or other design standards for boat ramps.

Some state sources suggested any such requirements would be handled by local governments.

In Tacoma, two sections of city code pertain to marinas — the shoreline code and the waterfront structures code — and neither outlines standards specific to boat launches.

The city doesn’t issue separate permits for boat ramps, said Jana Magoon, a planning manager for Tacoma’s development services department. She said a ramp is considered an improvement, not a structure.

Magoon said the city “has nothing to do with” the design at and around the Narrows Marina boat ramp.

“Our interest is facilitating public access to the waterfront” and making sure the marina as a whole complies with city code, she said.

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