Boathouse restrictions lifted

07/17/2014

The Inverness Association voted this weekend to vacate a longstanding deed restriction that banned residential use of the historic, century-old Brock’s Boathouse, which bears the iconic “Launch for Hire” sign on the Inverness waterfront. The restriction was at cross-purposes with its coastal zoning and has prevented the owners from exploring new legal uses for the site.

The 60 or so members present at Saturday’s annual meeting also discussed membership levels; though they jumped this past year, the association’s attention on other pressing matters has taken attention away from outreach that they hope to pursue.

The owners of the boathouse—Madeline Hope, John Hope, Mette Qvistgaard-Hansen and Steven Kirkeby—are paying the association $60,000 to eliminate the deed restriction, which was instituted in 1981.

That year, the Inverness Foundation, the arm of the association that owned the boathouse, sold it to a local couple, Ed and Nancy Richardson. In order to maintain its historic character, boat building and repair were deemed the boathouse’s preferred use; the association prohibited anyone from turning it into a home.

“The deed restrictions made sense 30-some years ago, but not really any longer,” said association board member Michael Mery, who noted that the wharf is in disrepair and the bay very silted in. “Having the deed restrictions in effect makes the very difficult application permit process for rehabilitating the building, if not impossible, then very close to it.”

The boathouse was built by a shy, lifelong bachelor named Brock Schreiber, who lived down Inverness Way. He finished construction on the boathouse in 1914, when he was 40 years old. 

According to Jack Mason’s “Point Reyes Historian” and a timeline assembled by Meg Linden, a committee member of the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History, Mr. Schreiber ferried passengers between the wharf and the train depot at Millerton Point, as well as beaches along the bay. Though Mr. Schreiber later built and briefly ran a grocery store, he leased it to someone else in 1932 and focused on running the boathouse; it was his true love in life, though he had difficulty making a living at it during the Depression. 

Mr. Schreiber died a 90-year-old man in 1964, and the Inverness Foundation purchased the boathouse a few years later for $20,000.

The boathouse’s regulatory troubles began after Philip and Paula Kirkeby purchased it in 1986. 

According to the association’s history, the boathouse was originally zoned as a repair business. But after Coastal Act zoning took effect, it was rezoned as single-family residential, with boat building considered a legal, nonconforming use. 

When the owners built a kitchen and a hot tub without a permit, the county ordered both removed. The Kirkebys did nothing, so the county declared the boathouse’s use permit void.

It was sold to the Hopes and their two partners in 2005 for $200,000. The association says it received complaints in 2006 about “noisy” events; Ms. Hope, at the time, responded that none were commercial and that they wanted the boathouse to “play a more integral role in this town.”

The association then received input from the county’s code enforcement division. Then-senior code enforcement specialist Debbi Poiani said that as far as the county was concerned there was no legal use at all—whether conforming or permissible non-conforming—unless it was occupied as a residence, which the deed restriction barred. Even if it could be occupied, she said at the time, it would still need a use permit, coastal permit and design review.

Ms. Hope wasn’t sure what new uses they might try to pursue in the future, but they will now begin talks with the county and figure out how to proceed. “It makes the property less encumbered, so we can now move forward with all the regulatory agencies to define uses that we feel would be appropriate for that building,” and suitable for Inverness, too, she told the Light this week. 

In recent years, they have used it for board meetings, retreats, receptions, art classes and other community gatherings, she said; the park service used it last month for the launch of its Seashore Youth Ambassadors Project. 

Of all the members present on Saturday, two voted against discarding the restrictions, fearing the change endangered the boathouse’s historic character. 

Brock’s Boathouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978; according to Mr. Mason, the group that sponsored the nomination wrote at the time that the boathouse “is a place where one can travel backward in time. It speaks not only to a generation that ‘knew it when,’ but in young people stirs a vague, even disturbing sense of what they have missed—the experience of a California summer romp when life was more fun than it is now.”

But the pair who wanted the deed restriction to remain fear the historical designation has no real teeth. 

Though the boathouse’s place on the register doesn’t have much legal force because it is privately owned, it bolsters arguments for preserving it. The county’s Planning Commission would likely consider its historic status if and when the Hopes apply for a new use permit, a process that will include public hearings. (If the Hopes follow the National Register’s rehabilitation standards, they could also be eligible for tax breaks.)

Membership

At its height, the Inverness Association had around 600 members—just about everyone in town, considering that the Inverness Public Utility District has 604 water connections. 

Although now half that level, membership chair Jim Grant said the group reached that apex in the 1980s when they purchased the Gables, the building that houses the library, which drew a wave of community support. Inverness’ population has also changed, he said, with some houses empty most of the year.

A push by the association last year increased membership from 230 to 268 members, but the board was also suddenly swamped with upgrading the library to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and negotiating a new lease for the Gables with the county. But now that the library renovations are done, a new lease with the county coming soon and the boathouse deed restriction dealt with, they are investigating new avenues for outreach; they’ll be at the farmers market, he said, and a stronger web presence might also help. “Have you been on our website?” he asked. “It’s bad. That’s kind of an obvious thing.”

 And perhaps they need to do a better job of branding themselves, too. The association maintains local trails and the Gables, and the Jack Mason Museum is a committee of the association. “No one says, ‘I like the work the Inverness Association is doing!’” he said. “They go, ‘I love my library and my museum.’ We’re the background infrastructure that allows those things to happen….That’s not very sexy stuff. It’s mundane…so we have a branding issue. But we’re trying.”