Tuesday Column – Bureaucracy v. Boathouses

Bureaucracy appears intent on sinking the boathouses.

A year after the flood, which brought destruction and state scrutiny to Ellis Boat Harbor, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is charting a course for boathouse extinction. True, it’s letting existing boathouses stay, so long as owners comply with costly regulations and don’t sell or transfer ownership to anyone outside the harbor.

Over time, thanks to those rules and nontransferability, the harbor community will empty out. And that’s what the DNR wants.

“Our sovereign water belongs to all the people of Iowa,” said Jennifer Lancaster, director of law enforcement for the DNR in northeast Iowa. The agency says the structures are illegal. “Why should these folks have more access to the water than everybody else?”

I don’t blame Lancaster for doing her job, and owners should be required to comply with reasonable regulations.

But why take this harbor away from some people of Iowa who have enjoyed it for decades for the sake of other people who might use it? No one is clamoring for the boathouses to be removed. Lancaster said complaints are few.

And after a flood that decimated and disrupted so many historic communities and unique traditions in this city, why does the state want to have a hand in finishing off one more? Is that really what the people of Iowa want?

“Very bluntly, I believe the DNR is making it as difficult as they can,” said City Council member Chuck Wieneke, who represents the harbor. “I believe the boathouses make the harbor. I’d like to see them stay.” I also think the harbor is worth preserving.

After I wrote about the boathouses in July, I got a call from Mary Lundby, the late, former state senator with a soft spot for the little guy. She called to make sure I understood that the boat harbor is a special place.

Lundby pointed out that while so many waterfronts in Iowa, such as West Lake Okoboji, are dominated by pricey homes and private resorts, Ellis Boat Harbor is a place where a working Joe or Jane could have a spot on the water. It’s also a unique community in this day and age, with workers and bosses, clock-punchers and big shots, all mixing together as they have for years.

She was right then, and the DNR is wrong now.

But there’s time for the department to work this out and change course.

There has to be a way for the boathouse community to coexist with some sort of expanded public access. Boathouse owners will have to accept changes. And regulators have to value people over process and history over bureaucracy.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Tuesday Column – Bureaucracy v. Boathouses

  1. Bec

    Excellent article!!!
    We (my husband & I) are “Harbor Tenants” that lost their boathouse. We wish to remain but the DNR is making it very difficult. They are making up the rules as they go along. What they say today is not what they said yesterday or what will be said tomorrow. The dump station for “black water” has been opened and closed several time already this year. I believe that it currently is closed. That is just one of the problems. They (problems) are numerous to say the least.
    I believe that what we need is a lot of publicity like this article and a “Pro Bono” Lawyer!!!! It probably would hurt to have Culver out of office either as the head of the DNR is an appointment of Culvers. Writing letters to Culver are just sent to the DNR and they file them in the circular file cabinet (waste basket).

  2. Mike

    There needs to be a distinction between “boathouses”, a place to park a boat and the many “houseboats” argueably just manufactured homes on the water.. Houseboats have no place on the river, the DNR has jurisdiction over not only the waterways in Iowa but also the adjoining floodplains. Structures for human habitation are illegal in the river, partly because of what happened last summer when they floated down the river and struck the railroad bridge. How much liability would the city face if one of those had floated into a neighborhood and destoyed homes or possibly killed someone who was not able to escape their home? They are illegal for a reason and those promoting their return are not looking out for the interests of their fellow citizens, but their own.

  3. Pingback: Why? « 24-Hour Dorman

    • Mike

      Do you think I am the one who called you? That is not the kind of language I use, as you can see from my posts. I do have to wonder though, why are you in favor of allowing something that is illegal to continue just because it went on for so long.

  4. tdorman

    I don’t know who called me, and wouldn’t guess.Didn’t mean to imply it was you. I want regulators to find a solution that balances the intent of those laws with the preservation of a unique and historic community on the river. It’s odd that some of the same DNR bureaucrats who will bend over backwards to give variances and breaks to industries and agriculture can’t figure something out in this instance.

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