Tisbury restricting houseboats

Two vessels were grandfathered into new amendments.

Vineyard Haven Harbor — Abigail Rosen

A ban on houseboats was implemented in Tisbury on Monday. 

After a public hearing, the Tisbury Select Board unanimously approved amending the town’s waterways regulations to place a prohibition on houseboats, or “non-water-dependent vessels,” and “non-water-dependent floating businesses.” 

This was an attempt to clarify the town’s rules on the vessels. Tisbury town officials have been trying to regulate houseboats for years, partly out of concern that Tisbury’s pump-out facility hasn’t been staffed in the winter. The facility disposes of a boat’s sewage. And there’s a concern about water quality with too many houseboats.

The select board went over changes in the regulation language to reflect the ban on houseboats on Monday. 

“We have had an ongoing issue with non-water-dependent vessels and non-water-dependent floating businesses and houseboats,” board chair Roy Cutrer said, who brought the issue to the table. 

In the regulations, the town defined a non-water-dependent vessel as “a vessel constructed as a raft, barge, or hull, and having a primary use that is not water-dependent and for which transportation is only a secondary use or purpose.” 

A non-water-dependent floating business was defined as a “business or commercial use that is not water-dependent and/or does not require direct access to water for its use.” A houseboat was defined as “a type of vessel constructed on a raft, barge, or hull that is primarily for habitation, and for which transportation is a secondary purpose.” 

Tisbury waterways committee chair Matt Hobart said the recommendation by several committees over the years was to prohibit these types of vessels. 

Hobart said the recommendations were “more prohibitive” than what his committee discussed before, although he made no “judgment call.” Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker said he had no issues with what was presented. 

Despite Monday’s vote, two vessels that have been in Tisbury will be exempt. 

These vessels are the Rouse, operated by Jeffrey Canha, in Vineyard Haven Harbor, and the Rascal, operated by Marion Wilson, in Lagoon Pond. According to the amendments made Monday, this right granted to the Rouse and the Rascal will not be transferred to new vessel owners.

“It’s unfair to leave these boat owners and operators in limbo,” Tisbury town administrator John Grande said. “It’s a bit cruel. And no one has the stomach to tell them to quit what they’re doing, because it wouldn’t be right or fair at this point.”

Some residents voiced concerns about the proposed amendments during Monday’s meeting. 

Tisbury resident Lynne Fraker called the proposed amendments “extremely restrictive,” and said that the language could be written better. She also pointed out that there are boats with points on the bow that people live on. Additionally, Canha’s vessel may look like a house, but it still has the ability to move around, like any other boat. 

“I kind of understand the business, and why that would be considered nonconforming, and why that would be allowed to remain where it is, but I just don’t understand why Jeff’s houseboat is called nonconforming,” she said. “A houseboat that can’t move around, that isn’t an active vessel, that would be banned, and that’s fine. But that’s not what Jeff’s vessel is. So I think this is a little bit too much.” 

Tisbury resident Mac Schilcher also said the amendments seemed prohibitive. 

Canha said while he personally doesn’t have an issue with the proposed amendments, others in Tisbury might. “I think they’re flawed, and if they were a vessel, they won’t float,” he said. 

In particular, Canha said some people could find the language problematic. “A non-water-dependent vessel would be like saying a non-air-dependent aircraft,” he said. 

Tisbury resident Christina Colarusso also questioned what would be a “non-water-dependent” vessel. 

Grande pointed out that the amendments also list “uses” as a part of the definitions. “This is to capture anything that falls through the cracks between houseboats and floating businesses,” he said. 

Additionally, Grande said, the amendments would “streamline” codifying the waterway regulations. 

Wilson, who is an artist, said she was “grateful” for the grandfathering of her “floating studio.” She said keeping the water quality clean was of “ultimate concern” to her. “I’ll be happy to work with anybody … to keep the waters clean,” she said.


  1. As your next door neighbor in Woods Hole and as a houseboat owner, we are the only harbor (Great Harbor) in the Upper Cape that allows houseboats, I wanted to share a few thoughts and experiences. Two summers ago amidst my efforts to build a new house float, a land neighbor threatened to sue me for my houseboat, because, in essence, we blocked his view. While the delusion of watershed view ownership is, well, delusional, and ultimately went to the Board of Selectmen and the only real arbiter (the harbormaster), it became obvious that those who have the houseboats are incredibly conscious of the health and safety of the water on which they dwell. I for one put solar panels on my new roof, and a composting toilet in the head. My impact on the adjacent fast moving tidal waters of Woods Hole, is minimal at best. Now while the “flotilla” ,as we like to call ourselves, are individual waterborne “vessels” we are a community of folks dedicated to an open sharing of our sense of inclusiveness, not done as an exclusive act. The harbormaster put into effect the long tacit need to keep the house floats within a specific distance from one of the harbor islands. We are welcoming, good stewards, like the artist briefly referred to in your article. I too am an artist and use a corner of my house float for painting. We pay the town and inspectors to dive and make sure our tackle is functional. Communities like this are a vital part of the character of our village and life on the harbor. The legacy of the commercial moorings and the use of these waterborne dwellings is long and always an expression of our commitment to environmental responsibilities of the ecosystem we inhabit. In a world of constant imposition by a need to control others, there exists the “great common sense gap” in how towns regulate unnecessarily. Far more critical to the health of the surrounding water-based ecosystems is sewering and nitrogenification via runoff due to grass-watering and chemical modifications to lawn care. Of course we do not have grass watering/nitrogenification issues. When we say “backyard” we are speaking of the windward float connected to the sterns of our houses. The hearing held in Falmouth regarding the house floats and a disgruntled waterfront homeowner, ended with the harbormaster fully acknowledging that the house float owners posed no threat to the health and safety of the water they “occupied” and in fact represent a group of folks who are exceedingly sensitive to the health of the environment that they are stewards of.

Comments are closed.