Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Can Floating Homes Help Us Dodge Climate Hazards?

We're all too familiar now with scenes of coastal and riverine flooding and destruction. Dramatic rooftop rescues of those who couldn't make it out of their homes in time. Others wading down quiet residential streets through waist-deep murky water to salvage what they can from their homes. Despite the twin climate perils of rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms, people keep moving to coastal and riverine hazard areas. And given the vital economic and cultural importance of coastal communities, a resilience strategy focused exclusively on buyouts and relocation seems farfetched.

So where do we go from here? Climate-resilient (green and gray) infrastructure investments are necessary. But is there a promising strategy for building more flood-resilient homes? In the February issue of Zoning Practice, "Climate Resilient Floating Residences," Meg Byerly Williams, explores how homes that rise and fall with tides and floods could be part of the solution.

Where's the Line Between House and Boat?

There are three basic types of floating homes: sail– or engine-powered cruising houseboats, stationary floating residences, and amphibious homes. As Williams explains, houseboats are like RVs; they can connect and disconnect from utilities and easily move from place to place. Stationary floating residences must be towed and, once docked, have permanent utility connections. Amphibious homes can rest on water or periodically dry land and move up and down on mooring posts as waters rise and fall.

According to Williams, though, the boundaries between these categories are fuzzy, and local tradition often dictates the usage of a single catchall term.

Functionally, the line between house and boat is determined by the duration of docking and the relationship between the vessel or structure and land-based utilities.

In the U.S., the term houseboat commonly refers to both self-propelled vessels and permanently docked structures.

How Can Zoning Help?

Few cities, towns, and counties in the U.S. explicitly address floating homes in their zoning regulations. However, Williams highlights several noteworthy examples and explores the relationship between zoning, building, and other local codes that can help ensure that floating residences are well-sited and constructed.

According to Williams, federal and local policy changes are necessary to maximize the climate-adaptive possibilities of floating homes. Currently, FEMA guidelines deem amphibious homes ineligible for NFIP insurance. Nevertheless, coastal and riverine communities have clear opportunities to explicitly define and authorize the placement of floating homes, subject to zoning standards that protect aquatic habitat and water quality, safeguard viewsheds and public access to waterways, and promote connections between floating neighborhoods and land-based services.

Climate-Resilient Floating Residences

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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Top image: Yingchao Teng, iStock, Getty Image Plus

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

February 9, 2024

By David Morley, AICP