Alex Barbato’s home is small and sways constantly, but he loves the location.
In the mornings, he can hear rockfish splash in the water and cormorants dive under the surface for eels. In the evenings, he can climb onto his deck and watch the sunset over the Inner Harbor. He likes his neighbors, lives within walking distance to some of Baltimore’s trendiest neighborhoods and pays no property tax.
But Barbato, his wife, their 2-year-old daughter and their 13-year-old Australian shepherd mix Sky were told this month that they had only a few weeks to take their 44-foot Gibson houseboat and leave the Lighthouse Point Marina in Canton to make way for $40 million worth of planned renovations — and that they won’t be welcomed back.
“We’ve been living here for four years. We’re a young family,” Barbato said. “I understand that they’ve got a dollar to make, but it seems pretty callous.”
Starting next month, the 460-slip Lighthouse Point will undergo a massive redevelopment, according to Tom Wood, the managing director of Monument Marine Group.
The company, which Wood said owns six marinas in the Chesapeake region, bought Lighthouse Point in April for $9.5 million from War Horse Cities, a Baltimore-based company founded by Scott Plank. Several docks are visibly degrading, buckling and bending upward. Wood said crews soon will begin building new docks, utilities, pilings, infrastructure and amenities at Lighthouse Point, with an eye toward attracting recreational boaters — not live-aboards.
The work is supposed to be completed by 2024. As of Friday, city records did not show any construction permits for the marina.
“It’s going to be a tremendous improvement,” Wood said. “We’re really striving for that crown jewel marina in the Baltimore Harbor.”
There are roughly a hundred boats docked at Lighthouse Point, and about half of the marina already has been shut down for the anticipated renovations. Boaters said it costs about $5,000 to $6,000 annually for a slip at the marina, with live-aboards paying an extra fee.
It’s not clear how many live-aboards reside at the marina — and how to define a live-aboard — but as many as 20 full-time residents may need to find new places to dock their homes.
Alana Tompkins, the chief marketing officer at Oasis Marinas, which has been managing the marina for several years, said Monument Marine Group is making good on years of promises from the prior owner to fix up the marina. She said management has been “extremely transparent” about the new plans and provided boaters a list of available marinas at which they could dock their boats for now.
“The majority of the Lighthouse [Point] Marina members have already moved on and they’re excited,” Tompkins said. “They’ve got deposits down on the new marina. They didn’t have any issues with this.”
But a tightknit community of boaters is irate over the renovation plans, saying the short notice to move set off a scramble to find someplace to dock their boats. They complained that the slips at other marinas will cost them thousands of dollars more per year and that the decision bucks years of promises made by the previous owner.
The boaters expect the price of a slip at Lighthouse Point to spike after the renovations, and Wood acknowledged that slip prices were being reviewed.
“The slip pricing hasn’t been finalized at this point,” Wood said. “It will reflect the level of investment in the quality of the amenities.”
One recreational boater, Lowell Kirk, said some slip holders are weighing their legal options while a live-aboard, 80-year-old Tom DeCarlo, said he was trying to rally his neighbors for a class-action lawsuit, framing the renovation announcement as an unlawful eviction.
Slip holders found out about the mandatory Sept. 16 move-out date through an email sent Aug. 17.
“All property not removed from the marina by September 16th will be considered abandoned and dealt with [as] such,” a follow-up email warned.
Barbato, a massage therapist, is a stay-at-home father during the day. His wife works as a pediatric dietitian. He said his family probably wouldn’t be able to live in Canton were it not for the affordability of the houseboat. They thought they could return to the marina after the renovations until his wife stopped by the management office and learned live-aboards would no longer be allowed.
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“They gave my wife some corporate line that they just repeated three times,” Barbato said. “I think they want to look real fancy and attract people that got a lot of money to spend, and folks that live on their houseboat aren’t that.”
Bill Lawton is a retired 77-year-old who has spent the past 17 summers living on his boat in the Lighthouse Marina. Lawton said slip holders had been led to believe the marina would be renovated in a piecemeal fashion, allowing slip holders to move around the marina as construction progressed. Boaters were renewing their contracts, he said, and others left for vacation, expecting to sail back to Lighthouse Point.
“Then, boom, we get an email,” Lawton said about the announcement to close the entire marina for renovations. “We’re all looking around, going, ‘What? How did that happen?’”
Lawton said he went from shock to disappointment to resignation. His best friend is leaving the marina and Baltimore entirely, he said.
“We have watched the decline of this marina over the past four or five years and this is just the logical conclusion,” Lawton said, recalling when Lighthouse Point used to house as many as 400 or more boats. “The biggest question we all have … why the abrupt change?”
Barbato, who now plans to motor his houseboat to a more expensive slip at Henderson’s Wharf Marina in Fells Point, said the whole situation has left him frustrated.
“I feel like they treated us like we don’t matter,” he said.