Riverhead Town might soon get tough with residents who have been residing in house barges on the town's shorelines without paying taxes.
Bryan DeLuca, general manager of the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center, said he was notified by the Suffolk County Department of Health last year that affluents and gray water -- including dishwater and shower water -- were spilling off.
The Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center, DeLuca said, has five house barges on the property at the marina. One belongs to the he said.
The barges currently have five tenants living on the barges both seasonally and year round, DeLuca said.
The Suffolk County Health Department told DeLuca that the house barges, or houseboats, would have to pump the effluents either into a holding tank -- or tie up to the town's sewer system.
"Because the house boats are stationary, there have been some concern with contaminants to the Peconic Estuary," DeLuca said.
The Riverhead Foundation staffers, he said, do not even use the bathrooms on the barge; employees use the facilities inside the Aquarium instead.
DeLuca said in order to remediate the situation and tie up to the sewer system, an $80,000 investment would be necessary. To that end, DeLuca asked for "clarity" from the Riverhead town board as to weather the existing barges can be grandfathered in.
Also, DeLuca said, down the line, the goal would be to allow house barge owners to choose models that are more attractive -- with new houseboats allowed in town, to create a community.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said some municipalities have banned house barges because no taxes are collected from residents living aboard the vessels.
DeLuca said while tax concerns and health department regulations may pose issues across Long Island, around the world, communities of houseboats are being built.
Councilman John Dunleavy said the issue was under discussion in recent years. "It went nowhere," he said. "Our concern is the whole South Shore is on the water and anybody could just pull up a house barge and park on our waterways with no regulation. They should be regulated, because of environmental concerns -- and pay taxes, because they still use our facilities. Something has to be done."
The whole issue, Dunleavy said, needs to be looked at.
Councilman Jodi Giglio said annual permit fee is an option. She asked DeLuca what the county's "drop dead date" would be, after which the vessels would either have to come into compliance or be removed. Another option, she said, is that existing house barges could stay until they were either destroyed by fire or other disaster or rendered 50 percent uninhabitable.
DeLuca said while the county has not given a "drop dead" date but said he has already commenced working with the engineers to mitigate the gray water going overboard and entering the estuary.
"They have to hook up to the sewer system," Dunleavy said. "If they don't, it will be an environmental nightmare."
Walter was concerned about the fact that no residents on the boats are paying taxes but potentially, children could be enrolled in the school system. "The question I'm posing is, what's fair?" Walter said.
Dunleavy added that some house barges exist in other locations around town, such as two currently on Riverside Drive at a dock there.
Walter asked Town Assessor Laverne Tennenberg if there were a way to assess the house barges.
Tennenberg said research must be done to consider if the barges are considered real property; mobile homes, she said, are considered real property and fixed to real estate.
Riverhead Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said in 2007, members of the local citizens' advisory committee expressed concerns about the house barges' impact on local waterways. Legislation was drafted and brought to the town board, where it "sort of died on the vine," he said.
The CAC asked again last year about what had transpired with that legislation. A provision existed, Kozakiewicz said, that would mean house barge owners would have to apply for the CAC to ensure ability to continue, to be certain gray water was not entering the sewer system. An annual permit would be issued, he said, except if more than 50 percent of the barge was destroyed by fire or other means.
Dunleavy asked about the lifespan of a houseboat.
"We've had two people living there for 20 years," DeLuca said.
Walter said he wanted to learn more about assessing the properties.
"I'd like to have the assessors do research because if they are tying into our sewer system, I'd like to know it's real property. And if so, will it be taxed."
Tax bills would go to the owners of the houseboats; DeLuca said two are owned by the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center.
Kozakiewicz said legislation is needed to prevent other house barges from coming and to "protect what's here." He asked if a sunset provision would be given. Other municipalities, he said, have either eliminated houseboats or taken a hybrid approach.
He added that he has looked at practices in Southold, East Hampton, Southampton Town, and Brookhaven Town.
"Some can continue, with a permitting process," he said.
DeLuca said he would not be willing to invest $80,000 to hook up to the town's sewers if there is a sunset date.
"If it ties into the sewer system or a land-based holding tank and they would be taxed, the inequity of it all has gone away," Walter said.
The supervisor said as long as fair taxes were being paid, he would not have an objection to new houseboats in Riverhead.
"These are thriving communities that are being built," DeLuca said, adding he's had calls from individuals docking their houseboats in Riverhead.
Dunleavy asked if a maximum number of houseboats allowed Riverhead should be discussed, but added, "If you protect the environment, it's better than with regular boats, because no gray water will be going into the Peconic," Dunleavy said.
Walter asked that the assessors gather research, get questions answered -- and reconvene with the town board some time next week.