MARINA DEL REY, CALIF. — As gold sun melts into blue horizon, Hans Etter steers his 52-ft. yacht into a four-hour guest slip here at the biggest man-made marina in the world.
Until recently, Mr. Etter lived on his boat in the marina, but for months he has been living at anchor offshore. Etter says he is one of dozens who have been recently "squeezed out" of dock space at the marina to make room for bigger, spiffier boats.
"This is supposed to be a marina where people of all incomes can come to boat, fish, and live on boats of all sizes," says the Swedish émigré, who has lived on his sail boat here for seven years. The 800-acre marina was built up from swamp land about four decades ago with public bond money and federal funds. Now, Etter says more than a dozen residential and retail projects are pending that could transform an accessible public space into a playground that favors the well-to-do.
"They are more interested in putting up expensive apartments for the wealthy and rich boat owners than in being stewards of the waterfront for everyone," he says.
As the population of coastal areas increases, real estate wars over ocean front property is creating a gentrification effect along the nation's coastlines and endangering a laid-back lifestyle that has long been a part of the culture at land's end. As luxury living proliferates at the water's edge, marinas and shorefronts are modernizing as well.
"People on houseboats and stilt-homes by the water are being kicked out," says Klaus Meyer-Arendt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of West Florida. "Gradually a piece of American culture is disappearing as these people are shunted aside."
Some communities are making an attempt to preserve public access to waterways. For instance, in Florida, new legislation encourages coastal communities to alter their development rules to encourage the preservation of recreational and commercial waterfront land.
But other communities see improved waterfronts as a progressive step. Here in Los Angeles, county officials say they are simply trying to make long overdue upgrades to dilapidated docks and meet a growing demand for larger slips. They are supported by many boat owners and marina visitors who feel at least some of the "live aboard" tenants - those who live full time on their boats and pay rent to the marina - pollute the harbor waters and create a shabby, noisy environment.
"There is no attempt to squeeze anyone out," says Roger Moliere, deputy director for assessment at the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors. "This is a second generation upgrade for the marina.... When you rebuild, you find a whole new era of compliance [regulations] and demand for bigger slips. In the process, you are going to lose a few places for the older, smaller boats."
In response, Don Klein, is spearheading a "Coalition to Save the Marina Inc." which has filed several lawsuits against the county, including challenges to the constitutionality of rules saying only water navigable boats are allowable, meaning no houseboats. "We're against the displacement of small boaters in favor of high- density, high-rise residential and retail developments," says Mr. Klein.
It's a battle long familiar to many oceanside communities."It is true from Maryland to Hawaii that the public and those who are less wealthy are gradually being denied ocean access," says Janet Mandrell, director of the Makai Society, an Oahu-based citizen advocacy group fighting for increased public access there. "Live aboards are becoming an endangered species in fights like this all over the country."
Stu Hoffman learned that firsthand when he scoured Southern California looking for a new place to dock after receiving his eviction notice from the marina here. "I called every marina every week and they told me they don't accept live aboards anymore," says Mr. Hoffman who says he lived alone, never played music, and paid his rent on time.
The marina is limiting the number of its live aboards in part because of plans to upgrade its facilities with an expanded park, aquatic centers, and dry boat storage, say city officials. "We want this place to be safe and clean and enjoyable for everyone," says Dusty Crane, spokeswoman for the country Department of Beaches and Harbors. She says the activists are a small minority unrepresentative of the thousands who enjoy the marina's free services.
Other boat owners in the marina tend to agree, saying the general appearance of the marina is improved with the exit of live aboards. "This place has come a long way in the past few years, and we use it all the time because it is so well maintained," says Penny Osterlund, eating a hot dog with her family at a covered picnic table.
With the merits of both arguments to be decided in court, national observers say the immediate fallout for others is the loss of a way of life, a bit of heritage that other countries have chosen to embrace rather than allow to disappear.
"In Europe, you see many coastal towns and cities who actually go out of their way to preserve the waterfront boating life because it provides color, contrast and interest ... as a tourist attraction, if nothing else," says Professor Meyer-Arendt. "They do a better job of preserving their boat culture by letting these people be grandfathered in. Some of their lifestyles have not changed since the '60s."