In hindsight, Annapolis boat dealer Eric Smith thinks he should have seen it coming.
This is a town obsessed with the sleek, the classic, the expensive - power or sail - a town that bills itself as "America's Sailing Capital." But some folks have not taken kindly to the two squat houseboats Smith docked along the Eastport waterfront last spring.
City officials, wary of the chunky 55-foot Annapolitan and its sister craft, the 42-foot Aqua Lodge, quickly slapped a series of warnings about rules for such vessels that the city charter defines as "house barges."
Smith said he hopes the two will be the first of a fleet of affordable, floating cottages - eventually maybe even floating resort communities - furnished and designed for live-aboard owners or weekend renters who might combine a laid-back dockside lifestyle of sunbathing and umbrella drinks with the occasional nautical jaunt through calm waters.
Both vessels come with a variety of packages that can include a big-screen TV, custom countertops, wet bar, a screened porch and twin 60-HP outboard motors. Prices for the Georgia-built houseboats range from about $60,000 to more than $300,000.
Smith says his houseboats shouldn't be classified as barges because they are self-propelled, making 11-15 knots at top speed, and are designed to be hauled on a standard flatbed truck trailer. He says he has located 400 slips in marinas in Annapolis and elsewhere along Chesapeake Bay that can accommodate his vessels.
"These houseboats aren't exactly a new concept, they've been around for 50 years," Smith says. "There's no doubt there's an element of prejudice in Annapolis because these houseboats open the door for people who can't afford huge yachts registered in the Cayman Islands. They just have a knee-jerk reaction. But right now, the city is holding off the wolves."
Nearby residents, who quickly chimed in, have not been shy about criticizing Smith's vessels, labeling them "floating trailers."
"I don't necessarily see being a little snooty as a bad thing," said Eastport lawyer Christopher Ledoux, a six-year Eastport resident who lives a block from Spa Creek. "When people move to a boating community, they expect to see boats. This doesn't seem like a big controversy. We're not trying to ban them, but we don't want to see house barges all over town."
Smith, who has sold boats for nearly 40 years, says part of the reaction from residents and city officials alike is the memory of a nearly 100-foot house barge, whose wealthy owner turned it into a party barge until a city ordinance shut out barges longer than 46 feet.
In the meantime, Ric Dalghren, the city's harbor master, says he will not enforce the 1984 rules for house barges, waiting until council members come up with new legislation, based on recommendations from the city's seven-member Maritime Advisory Board, which reviewed the original law.
Ross H. Arnett III, a Democrat who represents Eastport, says the bill would allow house barges less than 60 feet to tie up for display and sale purposes within maritime zoning districts. Larger vessels would be allowed for up to a month under a new permit system designed to make tracking the vessels easier. Any vessel available for rent would have to match standard rules that apply to bed-and-breakfast homes.
"What we're trying to do is to cover all the bases," said Arnett, who expects the issue to be settled sometime in January. "We have to make sure we're regulating these things properly and to be fair with everybody. The perception is probably worse for some people than the reality."