Retiree living on boat near San Francisco sues agency trying to evict him to protect sea grass

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A retired man living on a boat near San Francisco is suing a local agency that is trying to evict him from his home to protect a species of sea grass that lines the bay where he lives.

Dozens of people, including Daniel Knight, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, live on boats anchored in Richardson Bay, a shallow arm of San Francisco Bay located in Marin County, California.

The lead defendant in the lawsuit, the San Rafael-based Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), describes itself as “dedicated to maintaining and improving the navigational waterways, open waters, and shoreline of Richardson Bay.” The RBRA argues that vessels anchored in Richardson Bay harm the eelgrass that grows on the bay floor, and wants the boats removed.

Eelgrass grows “in the temperate unconsolidated substrate of shallow coastal environments, enclosed bays, and estuaries” and is considered to be “a highly productive species” that is “a ‘foundation’ or habitat forming species,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Eelgrass is under threat from both “natural and human-induced mechanisms” but “human population expansion and associated pollution and upland development” is the “primary cause” of its loss in the state, the NOAA report (pdf) says.

But Knight, who lives on a 35-foot sailboat, is suing in federal court, claiming his constitutional rights have been violated. He says the governmental body has failed to follow proper procedures and has refused to offer fair compensation for the boat it wishes to condemn.

David Breemer, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national nonprofit public interest law firm that challenges government overreach, said local authorities have decided that “boat anchors in Richardson Bay are destroying eelgrass on the bottom of the bay” and want to get rid of the boats in the hope of creating “an anchor-free area in the bay” that may allow the grass to grow back.

People have been living on houseboats in the bay for decades in a kind of Bohemian community, Breemer, whose firm is representing Knight, told The Epoch Times in an interview.

The authorities offered Knight a buyout for the boat but he refused it, the lawyer said. In October 2022, they served him with a notice saying his boat would be seized in 10 days as so-called marine debris. The boat is not marine debris under California law because it is seaworthy and is fit for transportation, Knight argues.

Knight fought the notice in federal court and won a temporary restraining order.

PLF notes that the 10-day notice did not provide an opportunity for a hearing or guarantee compensation. No matter where the boat is anchored, or if the agency claims he is breaking the law, the RBRA cannot move forward without giving Knight a chance to dispute the taking.

Even worse, giving him a mere 10 days to move his boat and all his personal possessions is unfair, PLF argues. Even rental tenants in California are allowed at least 60 days to move out of a leased unit.

Last month, Judge William Orrick of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, sided with Knight, extending (pdf) an existing injunction preventing the agency from seizing or destroying the boat.

Knight had rejected what he considered to be a bad deal from the agency, which is offering boat dwellers $150 per foot for their boats but with the condition that a boat owner loses the buyback funds if he ends up homeless in Marin County. He turned down the buyout, which amounted to about $5,000 which is far less than what the boat is worth, because his boat is the only place he can afford to live, PLF says.

“We’re claiming that this taking of the boat is a taking of private property without just compensation and an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Breemer said.

There are a “handful of constitutional property rights claims, all of which are pretty, pretty solid,” the attorney said.

The Epoch Times reached out to the Richardson Bay Regional Agency for comment but it had not replied as of press time.

The discovery or information-gathering phase of the litigation is scheduled to begin soon with a trial penciled in for Oct. 16.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Feb. 3, 2023, in The Epoch Times.