The Laws of Living Aboard

And how they affect your state's lakes

November 2010 Feature Joan Wenner

Rules and regulations concerning the anchoring and mooring for liveaboards are a tangled mesh of state statutes, local ordinances and private entity rules for certain large lakes and reservoirs. It is a sensitive subject for both liveaboards and rulemakers.

Affected boaters know all too well the primary reasons cited for the enactment of these regulations-lake, river, bay and coastal waterfront property owners strive to protect their views and, they say, maintain land values and water quality. They have significant clout with elected officials, as this segment of their districts are voters and not shy about making their wishes known.

It is not a hard decision for states and a myriad of local governing bodies to adopt and enact regulations and ordinances restricting the duration of time liveaboards are allowed to anchor or moor in waters, including at `permitted marinas' within their jurisdiction.  The issues of water quality and sanitation, which come under the public health and safety heading give elected officials all the authority they require to legally exercise their powers in the public interest. We're going to take a kind of grand loop around certain regions of the country to highlight some of the `liveaboard' regulations.


Starting at Grosse Point, Michigan, where there is not presently a time limit as such applying to liveaboards, by city ordinance they are empowered to issue permits pertaining to regulating the conduct and use of the harbor and pier as are necessary to protect public property and the safety, health, morals and public welfare. They also have the authority to inspect all boats moored at their piers or docks. This is pretty much the standard language used throughout many counties and municipalities around the country.


Moving easterly to Annapolis, Maryland's boating mecca, its municipal code provides it is unlawful for any person to anchor any vessel in city waters for more than 30 days in any 180 day period, unless the vessel and all on board register every 30 days with the harbor master on a city-authorized form. For public mooring in city waters-not more than 10 days in any period of 30 consecutive days unless registering and paying required fees, plus there are designated restricted mooring and anchoring areas. You can be made to move if creating an obstruction, environmental hazard, non-use of pumpout facilities, its size and ground tackle and frequency with which it's occupied, among other things. For houseboats, none exceeding 20 feet in width.


Incidentally, most states in the Northeast, including New York, and indeed nationwide, declare, again, that state waters are a unique and delicately balanced resource deserving protection for the people's health, safety and welfare, with most allowing any town or county to enact measures related to persons operating vessels within its jurisdictional limits. For New York, for example this includes designating special Vessel Regulation Zones, and covers all of the state, from Long Island Sound to the popular Lake George (which has the Lake George Park Commission making its own rules.).


Further down the coast to Georgia's `lake country' region, the huge Lake Oconee, second in size only to Lake Sidney Lanier, is owned by Georgia Power Co. and it operates and regulates everything on that body of water. Georgia state law prohibits the operation of any vessel, including a houseboat, with a marine toilet, galley, or sleeping quarters on no less than a dozen of its fresh water lakes.


We next visit Florida, where in South Florida particularly there has been an ongoing `war' waged on liveaboards for years. Florida Statutes specifically address liveaboards. One of the most important among them is allowing local government authorities to enact and enforce regulations restricting or prohibiting live-aboard vessels (except for the Intracoastal Waterway), and in marked boundaries of mooring fields. In federally managed areas like Biscayne National Park the Code of Federal Regulations governs and a special use permit is required to moor for more than 14 consecutive days or more than 30 days within a calendar year.


West to Texas. It does not address liveaboards in particular by statute in its state boating regulations, but does as other states grant in Chapter 31 local governing bodies to make rules and regulations they deem necessary for the public safety for public lakes and reservoirs under their authority. For federal coastal national seashore areas, again the federal regulations and time limits apply.


In California, and especially in coastal towns, municipal ordinances abound from San Diego to San Jose to San Francisco. A representative example is illustrative. Except as otherwise permitted, no vessel shall be moored, anchored, grounded, placed or otherwise located in any waterway for a period exceeding 96 hours. It further provides that a houseboat or liveaboard may only be moored only to the extent allowed by law, at a permitted marina-provided the vessel is moored in compliance with all applicable permit conditions imposed on the marina and in compliance with applicable federal and state laws, i.e. the houseboat or liveaboard has to be equipped with an operable approved sanitation device and capable of self-propelled navigation, for example. Same goes for being moored at a permitted dock.


Over to Oklahoma, its Department of Public Safety administers their boating regulations, but does not set liveaboard limits in state waters currently, but local authorities can regulate their waters. On the popular Lake O' the Cherokees, commonly called Grand Lake, the Grand River Dam Authority sets the usage rules. For instance, it allows, with a permit, free anchorage, however for sanitary reasons anchorage is not permitted in any one location for more than 48 hours, and any new anchorage must be more than a mile from the previous one-unless sewage is contained or there's an incinerator type disposal system. Motorized vessels over 3 feet, 6 inches are prohibited entirely.


And in Nebraska where liveaboard rules are not explicitly mentioned, it should be noted according to state's Game and Parks Commission that there are a number of rivers, state parks and recreation areas closed to all motorized boating.


The legalities relating to liveaboards appear to many boaters to be a tangled mesh of different rules. The regulations have become very strict over time and continue to become more so particularly in some places. The bottom line is that laws and regulations must be checked at every spot and at every level of government; and with possible other entities such as private companies, dam and reservoir district authorities, and even sometimes private lake associations in order to be safely lawful in extended stays aboard.


For helpful information, along with contacting state marine authorities, also check the following National Association of Safe Boating Law Administrators resources:


Northern Association of Boating Administrators


Southern States Boating Law Administrator's Association


Western States Boating Administrators Association



  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!