During the real estate boom years, waterfront homes on San Juan Island appreciate around 8-10% per year and those homes with docks appreciated around 13-20%. Docks have always been a coveted property amenity as they truly allow easy access to boating; the reason many want to live on an island.
Many, many years ago, docks were easy to obtain and were often used for making a living such as fishing, crabbing, commercial boat use and marinas. In today’s environment, docks are very difficult to obtain. The last few residential docks that were constructed were shared and took 2+ years with most of the delays within the Corps of Engineer’s various departments and the Tribes. Total costs for the legal fees, hard and other soft costs were in the range of $350,000-$450,000. Reportedly, the legal fees were in the range of 25%-40% of the total but this varied based on the amount of opposition and delays.
Even if you have the funding, there is no guarantee that your dock application will be approved. It is possible, but you must have a strong desire, be stress resistant and have deep pockets.
I pretty much tell my clients that processing a dock permit is a difficult option; they need to buy a home or lot with an existing dock or slip, if having one is in their criteria. Further, considering one of the public marina facilities is another solid solution. We also have condominium boat slips in a few of the towns that are a great option.
The property owners on the non-ferry serviced islands without community moorage have a less difficult time obtaining permits as the County can’t argue they have a feasible alternative; however, they may view a mooring buoy as an alternative. The process for an outer island dock is the same and their cost of construction is similar, but their attorney’s fees may be less due to less opposition.
We have many different sizes and types of docks in the islands as all are custom-built. The older docks are mostly wood with creosote pilings. Newer docks include grated plastic material on the piers, floats and aluminum ramps to let in the light. The pilings are all concrete/metal. These new docks are all environmentally friendly based on current technology.
Docks that were installed prior to the creation of our permitting department in the mid 1970 (s) are considered grand-fathered-in and permitted repairs can be made. Any structure repairs such as piling and float replacement must be permitted. The response period for a permit from the Corps of Engineers and County is several months, if not longer. Smaller repairs such as replacing a few boards also requires a permit.
Under the Shoreline Management Program, if you are replacing
33% or more of the structure, or 200 square feet, it is necessary to bring the replacement section of the structure up to current code; i.e. using functional grated materials.
Over the years there has been concern over the “porcupine” effect of docks on our shoreline; we didn’t want to become Lake Washington. As per the assessor’s records, we currently have around 480 piers in the County, located on our 2,489,800 lineal feet of shoreline. Other than manually counting, I was unable to determine how many of the 480 piers are public or marina facilities, such as Roche Harbor, Port of Friday Harbor and other public piers. The assessor conducted their survey by counting the piers; not floats ramps or slips.
The majority of the private, shared or community docks are located in the protected bays, however; there are some seasonal docks in the channels. The seasonal docks have their floats removed during the winter season and their ramps elevated to protect them from the winter storms.
It was estimated that 10% percent of the total docks are deep-water. In the real estate industry and at the assessor’s office, we consider 6+ feet at zero tide to be a deep-water dock; and that typically can handle most power and sail boats, except at the extreme minus tides that we have during the year in the summer. During those tides, some owners must move their boat to their mooring buoy or anchor in deeper water, or go to Roche Harbor for lunch during the tide change.
The rest of the docks vary in depth, and many go dry during the low tides. It is common practice with those dock owners to just trim up the motors and let the boat nestle in the mud. You fish around the tides anyway, so the impact to the owner isn’t a major event.
When the tax assessor’s office revised how they valued docks from cost approach to market approach, they measured the approximate depths and recorded the information in the County assessment records. Now they have a sophisticated formula to assign market value to each dock based on size and type of materials used. In my opinion they are still behind market value, but I am confident that anyone that knows they are undervalued, will report themselves to the assessor’s office.
If you are buying or listing property and need to know the dock depth, you can now contact the assessor’s office for that information.
The County assessor website records also reflect the size of your piers, ramps and floats. Further, I have been told that the Friends of the San Juans also recorded dock sizes throughout the County to aid in monitoring changes made without permits.
As an agent, when we value a dock for marketing purposes, we consider the number of listings with docks currently on the market and formulate that into the equation. Further we know that it is extremely difficult to obtain a dock, so the existing docks are very valuable, even if they are in poor condition. I typically assign no less than $400,000 to a private dock with pilings, even if it has deferred maintenance. If it is in good condition with modern technology and/or has a boat house, the value goes up. If it is shared, the value is divided by the number of users.
If the dock lacks pilings and has just an anchorage system, it is of less value.
If the property is assigned a slip on a shared dock, I value that similar to one of the condominium boat slips at the Cannery or Warbass; about $3000 per foot in length, subject to market conditions and the location of the slip. This is based on the average price per foot of the last few slip sales which had multiple offers and a bid war.
If the property has a community moorage, such as Brown Island or Cape San Juan, additional value is assigned as well.
Currently there are waiting lines at all the resorts and private marina facilities as boating is truly a popular past time of islanders.
Mooring buoys are a good alternative although it can be difficult to make the transition from your dingy to the larger boat on the buoy. Age and flexibility must factor into the process for some of the boat owners. The County used to favor buoys over anchorage due to the lack of destruction to aquatic vegetation from pulling the anchor; however, now the tribes are now objecting to them.
You can install a registered mooring buoy for around $7000-$8000 that meets the Corps of Engineers, the Tribes and County standards. New registered buoys must be in 16 feet of water and not interfere with any existing buoys nearby or waterways. The process is much longer now due to the Tribe’s objections, so I am unable to quote a solid time frame. One of my clients has one is process and they are now on year two without a permit.
Another viable option, when the beach is suitable, is installing permitted beach access stairs with a platform to store your dingy or kayak. The platform must be above the ordinary high water, so that it is not considered a dock. Beach stairs are also more favorable to the environment as they consolidate the people traffic on the stairs versus having numerous trails down the beach that can contribute to erosion. Stairs must have a natural color and be made from materials such as wood, metal, gravel or stone. No concrete stairs down to the beach are allowed. The process requires a permit which will require the Soil Stability and No Net Loss reports.
Docks will always be in demand and will elevate the price of homes that already have them by more than the cost to install. Many years ago, I only assigned $100,000 to the value of a dock, but times have changed. As mentioned above, I now assign $400,000 or more.
I am one of the fortunate property owners that have a dock; of course, it is shared and my fees to attorney Stephanie O’Day were only $6000 and the cost to construct was only $30,000. This was in 1992, so a lot of changes have happened in the last 30 years.
We have attorneys and consultants in our County that have been successful in processing dock permits and dock repairs.
I have noted that the Canadian Geese deem the eel grass one of their favorite foods and are a cause of depletion. In reviewing dock applications, that information isn’t recognized in the process of whether a dock should be approved. It makes sense that docks are viewed as the source of harm to the environment not nature as the government can do something about the docks, but not nature. The regulations have functioned as designed; the consequences, whether intended or not, have made docks cost more, take longer and are more difficult to obtain.
Merri Ann Simonson
Posted May 2022