Update, April 5, 6:46 p.m.: The State Lands Commission directed staff to work together with Redwood City and residents at Docktown Marina to craft a proposal that would allow residents to stay at the marina for 15 years. The city wants to restrict the rental and transfer of liveaboards during that time, which residents oppose. The final proposal would have to be approved by the state Legislature.
The floating home community of retirees, young families and veterans has been around for decades. But now, residents who raised children and bought homes at Docktown are being told they never really had a right to live there, even though they held leases for dock slips all along.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the other two State Lands commissioners are deciding whether to support a request by Redwood City to allow for a 15-year transitional period to move residents out. If the commission approves the city's proposal, state legislators would still have to introduce and approve a bill, with an uncertain timeline.
Redwood City Illegally Renting Marina for Residences
Staff at the Office of the Attorney General and the State Lands Commission, which controls tidal and submerged lands, wrote to Redwood City in recent years that residential uses at Docktown Marina are not permitted, as liveaboards are located on public land.
Redwood City is currently looking at options to potentially relocate residents to bring the city back into compliance.
"We have to be consistent with state law. We don’t have a choice about that," Vice Mayor Ian Bain said. "If state law or policy doesn’t change, that means liveaboard uses are not allowed."
The news came as a shock to residents such as Ellen Savage, who bought her two-story floating home at Docktown more than 14 years ago. Savage says she loves smelling the sea breeze and seeing the wildlife and occasional seal from her back porch right above the creek. But more than anything, she loves the community she's built there over the years.
"I don't want to move," says Savage, 66. "I love living here with these people. It's very eclectic but it works really well. We are all very good friends and look out for one another."
Savage, a Palo Alto native who is now retired, pays the city $710 to rent her dock slip and for city services such as sewage pumpout. She began leasing directly from Redwood City in 2013, when the city took over management of the marina. Before then, Savage paid rent to the private business operating Docktown.
"I find myself feeling like a pawn in a chess game. Somebody else is going to determine my fate, while they take money from me," says Savage, adding that if she had known earlier that residential uses might be unlawful at Redwood Creek, she would not have invested in buying her one-bedroom floating home at Docktown.
Savage and other residents believe relocating many of the floating homes, which look more like houses than boats and can't navigate on their own, would be nearly impossible. Other Bay Area marinas, such as in Berkeley and Vallejo, have a years-long wait list for residential slips and require boats to be seaworthy and able to navigate away from those slips every so often.
"If Docktown is closed and there is no place to relocate us, I'll probably get some settlement from the city and that would be it -- the house would go to the crusher," says Savage, glancing at her living room full of books, music CDs and other possessions she collected throughout her life with her late husband.
Attorney Bill Sloan, of San Francisco's Morrison and Foerster law firm, is concerned that Docktown residents found out about their potential eviction from letters between the city and staff at State Lands, without a proper public hearing or discussion.
"How can it be that this community has been allowed to exist for 50 years and now it's suddenly revealed to them ... that somehow their existence there is not even permitted," says Sloan, who is representing Docktowners before the State Lands Commission. "That to us doesn't sound right. It doesn't sound right as a matter of fairness. But we also have some questions on whether that is an appropriate interpretation of the law."
Vice Mayor Bain, who has been part of Redwood City's City Council for 13 years, said it's standard practice for cities to consult with their own legal counsel on issues like this. The city's goal is to have a plan for Docktown's future by the end of this year.
"We are committed to working with Docktown residents who will be heavily involved in developing the plan going forward," says Bain.
Bain says he found out residential uses were not allowed at Docktown only in 2014 from staff at State Lands. Redwood City invited the State Lands Commission to participate in the city's planning process to revamp the 100-acre Inner Harbor area northeast of Highway 101 and along Redwood Creek.
"We allowed liveaboard uses because we weren’t aware that that’s what the state policy was," says Bain. "Once we became aware of the issue with State Lands policy, it’s something that we have been working on ... and our No.1 commitment is to our residents."
History: Docktown Marina
The state of California granted control and management of "certain salt marsh, tide and submerged lands" at Redwood Creek to the city in 1945. In 1964, the city leased the waterway to the owner of the adjacent land, J. Franklin Salaman, who created a marina business that was eventually transferred to Fred Earnhardt Jr.
Records show the city became concerned about residential uses at Docktown Marina, particularly the construction of floating homes without permits, safety issues related to the conditions of some vessels and water pollution.
By 2001, then-city manager Ed Everett was calling Docktown a "major concern to the city" and a "public nuisance."
Residents say they have repeatedly requested sewage connections, but the city has connected sewage for only four of the 70 liveaboards. The rest have a sewage pumpout service, and gray water from sinks and showers goes into the creek.
In 2013, Earnhardt closed his marina business, and the city began managing Docktown and collecting rent from its residents. The city's revenue for the marina over the last eight months was nearly $422,000, which City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz says is not enough to cover operating costs.
Between 2011 and 2012, the city earned only $20,400, as most of the dock's rents were going to Earndardt's business.
City Agrees To Settlement Over Docktown
Real estate attorney and sailing enthusiast Ted Hannig can see Docktown every day from his new condo right across the creek. Hannig says the city knew residential uses were not included in the state's land grant for a long time, at least 15 years.
"Everyone has a right to that space under the public trust doctrine," says Hannig. "And the city has been knowingly violating that state law by allowing people to isolate parts of it for residential use."
Hannig is not popular with his neighbors at the docks. He slammed the city with a 480-page lawsuit last year over public doctrine and environmental violations at Docktown. His lawsuit includes claims that the city didn't properly notify residents or county authorities that the mud under Docktown's liveaboards is highly contaminated with mercury and lead from the area's industrial past.
The city settled the case within two months. They agreed to set aside $3 million to address potential relocation assistance and contamination costs for Docktown. The city also awarded Hannig and the group he founded, Citizens for the Public Trust, $1.5 million.
"I wanted the city to know that when they stray off and they continue to do something unlawful for a period of time ... there will be people who come after them. There will be people who recover attorney's fees against them," says Hannig.
The agreement baffles Docktown residents, who say they are good stewards of the creek, cleaning up trash regularly, and that everyone is welcome to enjoy the waterway. They wonder if Hannig, who worked in the sale and closure of a nearby houseboat marina, sued the city to get Docktowners out of the picture and to benefit developers.
But Hannig denies those claims vehemently. He is aware his lawsuit sped up the potential relocation of Docktowners who can't afford to live anywhere else in the city.
"It's not that we're opposed to affordable housing. What we're saying is this is the wrong place, and it's causing potentially long-term damage," says Hannig.
Vice Mayor Bain says that at this point the city is trying to balance the hardship of requiring the relocation of all tenants from homes that are naturally affordable, with the public's need for greater access to that area. That is why the city is requesting State Lands support legislation that would allow Docktown to remain for a period of 15 years.
"We need a lot of time to look at whether or not we can build another floating community in Redwood City or whether they’ll have to relocate elsewhere," says Bain. "Personally with this community, I would like to keep the community together and I’d like to keep the community in Redwood City."
Ellen Savage, the Docktown resident, hopes State Lands commissioners will approve the city's request to allow for temporary residential uses at Docktown.
"It sure beats hearing that we have to be out in 15 months," says Savage. "I can live with this."