A waterfront developer who is promoting his marina as an answer to a housing shortage is making waves in St. Mary's County, where local officials are trying to decide where to draw the line between a "floating home" and a pleasure boat.
The controversy centers on Charles Kimball, the owner of Cedar Cove Marina, where six 14-by-42-foot houseboats are moored, and the taxation and pollution requirements that the county imposes on those boats.
Maryland, unlike Virginia, does not tax personal property, so houseboat residents have to pay only annual slip fee that in Maryland averages about $1,000.
Kimball insists that the boats, which sell for between $50,000 and $80,000, are legal, nonpolluting and seaworthy.
"We have some opposition to our boats down here, but these are clean people staying here, and as long as I'm around they will be called boats and not houses," he said.
Kimball, who supervises the construction of the one- and two-story boats at the marina, said that his development is in a special marine industrial zone that permits nonconforming uses.
But members of the St. Mary's Taxpayers Association have raised concerns about the development's implications on taxes and pollution, and they told county commissioners of their concerns last week.
"We don't want the planning commission to approve any more of these developments until a complete environmental study is done and some plan for tax equity is worked out," said Marylynn Whetstine, president of the association.
"First it was trailer homes, and now floating homes are on the horizon," Whetstine said after the meeting.
"We just want to make sure that each group pays their fair share of the county tax base."
According to Frank Gerred, the director of planning and zoning for St. Mary's: "What he Kimball is doing is legal for boats under existing law but, if someone decides to define the structures as something other than boats, this development and future ones could well become an issue."
Adding to the confusion about the classification for houseboats, Jarred said, is the fact that the state health department views structures such as Kimball's in the same category as houses when it comes to water hookups and sewage disposal.
In the end, it comes back to definition, said Chuck Holmes, the owner of Anchors Away Houseboats in Annapolis.
"If you put shingles on a boat, does it become a house?" he wondered. "How do you define what they officials want to ban?"
Holmes said that most of his customers start out with a houseboat as a second home, but that about40 percent end up making it their only abode.
In the Washington area there are an estimated 400 to 500 persons who live on houseboats.
"Many are retired, or very young. They like the water and the adventure of living on it," Holmes said.
"We sold to a college professor in Occoquan, Va. There's a dental hygienist in D.C. with one of our boats, and a deputy sheriff just bought one."
Kimball said that his houseboats are a low-cost housing option in a county where "you can't touch a small waterfront lot for less than $63,700, and that's without a septic hookup. . . . "
County officials also have noted the critical shortage of moderately priced housing and have enacted a liberal mobile-home zoning law as an alternative.
Kimball also said that houseboats will help with the tourist trade.
"St. Mary's is crying because there are no overnight accommodations, but we've got them here," he said.
Among the current live-ins at Kimball's Cedar Cove marina are a contractor and an engineer for the Patuxent Naval Air Station.
"They are renting rooms at about $40 a night, but there is option to buy a boat or we can rent to a family looking for a novel vacation," Kimball said.
Holmes pointed out that the controversy in St. Mary's County is not an isolated problem. Calvert and Anne Arundel counties have banned boats from permanent moorings because of concern over pollution.
The issue, Holmes said, came to a head in Annapolis last year when three or four large two-story barge homes wanted to tie up at the city dock.
"You could certainly say, with their arrival, there went the waterfront view," he said. "Nobody wants a house on a raft in a historic district."
Following that incident, Annapolis banned the oversize barge homes in February from tying up for longer than 48 hours.
"The question is, where do we go?" Holmes said.