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Pete's Harbor live-aboards fight for their way of life

Residents of the old Redwood City marina have been told to ship out to make way for development, but many are unwilling to weigh anchor.

December 01, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Buckley Stone is one of more than 60 people who live on their boats at Pete's Harbor. They face eviction soon as an upscale condo development moves in. Jones and some of his neighbors are fighting the evictions.
Buckley Stone is one of more than 60 people who live on their boats at Pete's… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Pete Uccelli took 20 acres of swampland and transformed it into a boatyard and marina, welcoming visitors and residents of his beloved town to stroll the docks and feed the ducks.

His restaurant on the southern edge of San Francisco Bay became a gathering spot — hosting Rotary Club meetings, business lunches and quinceañeras.

"Pete's Harbor" also was a haven for "live-aboards," who rejoiced in the riches of the wildlife refuge a stone's throw away and often shared their unique lifestyle over barbecue and beers.

But after nearly six decades, it looks like it all may be coming to an end.

Boaters and motor-home owners — well over 100 of them full-time residents — were told by Uccelli's widow, Paula, that they'd have to clear out by Jan. 15.

Her husband had started talking about selling the land for development more than a decade ago. After several starts and stops, planning commissioners in late October approved a Colorado builder's plan to raze the restaurant, construct more than 400 condos and apartments and restrict the marina's slips to use by the new residents.

Although many boaters gave up and pulled out — their slips have been cordoned off with yellow tape to ensure that they stay vacant — a dedicated group of residents is calling for compromise.

"It's not really about us," said Roger Smith, 68, who used to dine at Pete's restaurant when it was a thatch-roofed hamburger shack. He parked his motor home here for good seven years ago. "It's about Redwood City and the rest of the region — and what it's going to lose."

Just up Redwood Creek from Pete's, the same developer demolished hundreds of live-aboard boat slips a few years back. At marinas with slips directly on San Francisco Bay waters — as some of Pete's are — a state conservation commission limits live-aboards to 10% of the total, and waiting lists for larger vessels tend to be long. Marinas without adequate parking, bathrooms or pump-out facilities don't allow live-aboards at all.

The current residents of Pete's Harbor have appealed the city Planning Commission's decision and suggested that an alternative plan could allow for some development while still preserving a commercial marina that would let them stay. After all, they noted, the city's General Plan pays plenty of lip service to the value of "floating communities" here — both culturally and as affordable housing.

Behind the grass-roots offensive is a history of opposition to bayfront development in Redwood City — a community of 80,000 on the outskirts of Silicon Valley. In fact, voters eight years ago rejected a zoning change that would have allowed a much larger project to be built on the same land.

This time, opponents asserted, the plan was jammed through without adequate public scrutiny at a time when the city is reassessing its vision for its inner harbor area.

"It was a done deal," said Buckley Stone, 54, a boisterous veteran who has lived here for 20 years with his wife, Wendy.

But the city planning manager, Blake Lyon, said the project fit the area's zoning designation and did not warrant greater input because the environmental impact report conducted years ago for the larger project needed only to be amended, not redone.

Still, the appeal will give live-aboard tenants a chance to air their concerns before the City Council in late January.

According to Ted Hannig, a longtime friend and attorney of the Uccellis, the current residents have had month-to-month leases since 2002 and knew the harbor would one day change hands. Ninety percent of them, he added, even signed a lease addendum that noted the marina was up for sale and agreed to leave their slips when asked.

"Pete's Harbor has no obligation to have live-aboards there," said Hannig, who has considered himself a boater since he built his first raft out of bamboo and bedsheets at age 11. "What they don't want to say is that they're not keeping their word to a dead man or to Paula, his widow."

Even some who sympathize with the Pete's Harbor residents said they should have known their paradise wouldn't last forever.

"It's like a hurricane in the Gulf," said Mark Sanders, who recently opened the nearby Westpoint Harbor Marina — the Bay Area's first new facility in decades. "If you're living in Jacksonville, Fla., you know you're going to get whacked with a hurricane. You just don't know when."

When Paula Uccelli told her boating and RV tenants in September that they'd have to be out after the New Year's holidays, they started mobilizing. Public meetings had already begun on the development but no one bothered to let them know, they contend.

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