Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Annapolis boat broker Eric Smith and his partner, Douglass Dillard, are married.

A Houseboat Venture With That Sinking Feeling

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

From the beginning, it seemed that the attraction was about opposites. He loved boats. She loved motor homes. And so it made sense that eventually Eric Smith and Douglass Dillard, married for 10 years, would happen upon a joint venture that would combine their respective passions for boats and movable lodging.

This would lead to great things, they were certain. And so this spring, when the couple launched their houseboat sales business behind the historic Trumpy boatyard in Annapolis, their optimism was high. They'd sell fleets of them, populate the Chesapeake Bay with enough to create floating resorts. Ones with clubhouses and swimming pools. Maybe even a tiki bar or two. People would love it!

"We both believe that this is where the future is," Dillard says. They have invested at least $500,000 in the scheme. Smith has been a sailboat and powerboat broker in Annapolis for 37 years. Yet so far they haven't sold one houseboat.

It's been a bit of a shock for them to find a lack of enthusiasm for their idea among the locals, and perhaps a whiff of disdain. Houseboats don't have the best of reputations in certain boating-oriented locales. Sometimes the phrase "floating trailer homes" may slip out in conversation among circles of those people who prefer their boats to be sleeker and commanded by the likes of Larry Ellison or Malcolm Forbes.

Not long after docking the taupe-and-white 55-foot houseboat they dubbed the Annapolitan near a boatyard where the U.S. presidential yacht Sequoia was launched, curious neighbors started coming by. The new houseboat brokers happily obliged them with tours, pointing out the clerestory windows, flat-screen TVs, vaulted ceiling, wet bar, rooftop sun deck and swimming platform. Tie a boat to the back and you can cruise in it wherever you anchor, like a recreational vehicle on the water. With twin 60-horsepower engines, it's got enough get-up-and-go to hit maybe 15 knots and tow the kids on boogie boards, provided the water is calm enough.

"Oh, that's interesting," Ross Arnett, a local alderman, recalls thinking after touring the boats and listening to the other advantages of houseboat ownership: pay no property taxes for waterfront living even if you never leave the dock, recoup your costs by letting Bay Yacht Agency (Smith and Dillard) manage and rent it out when you're not using it.

For a moment, Arnett could even imagine himself on one, "sitting on the screened-in porch . . . watching the fish jump and the geese honk. You could see where it has an appeal," he says, pausing, "just like RVs have a certain kind appeal." The reverie didn't last long.

Nor did it take long for someone in the community to recall a certain case several years ago involving a millionaire with a three-story house atop a 100-foot barge. The millionaire cruised around Annapolis on his luxo-barge. There were parties and drinking, all of which was rather noisy and lasted until the late hours. Somebody recalls a disco ball on a dance floor, which contributed to the blazing spectacle of it all.

The bottom line is that Annapolitans weren't terribly happy with it and so there was a review of city ordinances. Since then, houseboats have been defined as "house barges." They are expressly forbidden when they exceed 46 feet in length; are principally intended to be used as a house, office or social club; and are not self-propelling. (Longer houseboats can stay temporarily, but only if they're for sale, and no more than 30 days.)

"Just talking to neighbors and people I've run into, I'm not sure people want these," says Chris Ledoux, a lawyer who lives across the street from the Trumpy boatyard.

He can't see the water from his house, and he doesn't want to spend a lot of time obsessing over the issue. But if bigger houseboats start coming in, would it be such a stretch to imagine "German Rhine barges coming up the river, or some University of Maryland students with a party barge?" Ledoux wonders. Or what would happen if an unsuspecting buyer docks one of these things at the end of the pier, only to find the neighbors objecting and then having to find somewhere else to park it?

The topic was raised last month at a local leadership lunch, where all the civic, business and maritime types catch up. It came up again at a maritime advisory board meeting and soon Smith found a warning on his flagship houseboat. Within 30 days, according to the citation issued by the city harbor master, the Annapolitan needs to shove off. After that, the city could slap on a $100 fine for every day it stays.

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