Supreme Court--It may float but it is not a boat
A floating home is not a vessel to be regulated under federal admiralty law, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a colorful decision that featured photographs and the first dissenting opinion in an argued case since the term started in October.
The case was closely watched by businesses that operate floating structures like casinos, restaurants and hotels. Structures deemed to be vessels are subject to federal laws and regulations, including ones concerning safety, employment and taxes.
The case concerned what Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority in the 7-to-2 decision, described as “a house-like plywood structure with French doors on three sides." Inside were a bedroom, sitting room, closet and kitchen. A stairway led to an office on the second floor.
The home could not propel itself, but it was occasionally towed from one Florida marina to another, sometimes over long distances. In 2006, it was docked at a marina owned by the City of Riviera Beach, Fla. A dispute over dockage fees led to a lawsuit under federal admiralty law.
The owner of the structure, Fane Lozman, countered that the court had no jurisdiction because his home was not a vessel. A federal law defines vessels to include “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”
The federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled against Mr. Lozman, under what Justice Breyer called an “anything that floats” approach. That, the justice said, was too broad.
“To state the obvious,” he wrote, “a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not ‘vessels.'”
The correct inquiry, Justice Breyer went on, was whether “a reasonable observer” would conclude that the structure was “designed to a practical degree for ‘transportation on water.'” Mr. Lozman’s home, he said, did not qualify.
...House boats without motors will probably get a different local tax treatment until the local tax codes are changed to hit the owners from a different angle. There are several such "boats" in the Seattle area and in other places where the price of land is more dear than the price of an anchorage. I think Breyer missed an opportunity by leaving out Ivory soap.