Summer fun or obnoxious invasion? The boaters who tie up and party in Kirkland's Juanita Bay say they're harmless, but nearby residents say the noise and potential safety risk to others are worthy of City Council attention.
Robert Pantley and his family like to go out in boats to fish, water ski, wakeboard and photograph wildlife.
But the party scene outside their Juanita Bay house bears little resemblance to Pantley’s idea of what boating is about.
The screaming engines of speeding boats, throbbing stereo subwoofers, sexually explicit song lyrics — and at least once a live band — bombard his lakefront property on warm, sunny days.
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“I’ve got a 12-year-old son, and I don’t want him listening to it. If you want to listen to it in a nightclub, that’s fine. If you want to do it at your home, that’s fine. But don’t make us listen to it,” Pantley said.
“The music gets louder and louder and louder as the drinking goes on. … If you have 100 nice days, you have 100 days of blasting music.”
Since Pantley, a former Kirkland City Council member, and two other residents wrote to the council last fall and he showed a short video clip of a bay full of partying boaters, the council has been considering rules to address noise and safety issues.
A draft ordinance that would have banned the practice of “rafting” boats together in open water as well as loud “hooting, whistling or singing” and stereo sounds audible from more than 50 feet away was sent to a committee for revamping after objections from boaters.
Council members expect to shelve a rafting ban at least for this year, but hope to adopt a noise ordinance in June.
Kirkland Police Capt. Bill Hamilton told the council in March that police were concerned about behaviors associated with rafted boats, including noise, nudity, public urination, and ski boats and personal watercraft speeding past swimmers.
“We genuinely have the fear that someone is going to drown or be struck by a boat in this area,” Hamilton said.
There have been deaths, including 20-year-old Javed Khan, who drowned while boating with friends in 2009.
“I’ve pulled out a few people who have drowned in Juanita Bay,” said King County sheriff’s Deputy Chris Bedker, a member of the county Marine Rescue and Dive Unit since 2000. Not all the deaths were boating related.
Some boaters and sympathetic lakefront homeowners say the noise and safety problems have been exaggerated.
“It’s the sounds of summer! What’s wrong with the sounds of people having fun? Joyous people make me happy,” said Bill Wassmer, who has a home on the bay.
“If you don’t want to listen to this, don’t buy a house,” he said.
As for the city’s motives, Wassmer said, “I think Mr. Hamilton would love to put two or three guys out here to cruise around and look at girls in bikinis. It’s a power grab we don’t need.”
City officials say they have no intention of setting up their own marine patrol, but have been discussing with the county marine unit how to keep the floating party under control. The county marine unit patrols the city’s waterfront under a contract with the city.
Several boaters who frequent Juanita Bay told the City Council that tighter rules would prompt them to put their boats in the water elsewhere and buy their provisions and visit restaurants and bars somewhere other than downtown Kirkland.
City officials invited merchants to attend a public meeting on possible legislation last week.
Kirkland, with a downtown marina and boat launch, is generally viewed as a boating-friendly city. It is unclear how strong that friendship will be after the dust settles on the dispute over Juanita Bay.
Much of the debate has focused on rafting boats together — a practice that allows sun worshippers to climb from boat to boat visiting friends, but that some waterfront residents call keggers.
In some parts of Lake Washington, like Andrews Bay next to Seattle’s Seward Park, rafting is a family activity, said Jeff Pace, fleet captain for the Rainier Yacht Club and moderator of the Andrews Bay Yacht Club.
Friends tie up together, turn on the barbecue and prepare a meal while their children swim, and then they spend the night on the water, he said.
Juanita Bay draws a younger crowd more inclined to drink excessively and take their clothes off, Pace said. “That’s the element in Juanita that has caused the concern among the neighbors. I don’t blame them.”
But he objected to banning rafts “as a way to profile the boaters that they don’t like,” saying existing laws should be enforced and speed limits considered.
Juanita Bay is a strong draw for young boaters, many of whom cluster in groups of four to 12 boats, and who once built a raft of 45 boats in a gathering promoted on social media, Bedker said.
Boaters with blaring stereos tend to turn them down when they see a sheriff’s patrol boat, Bedker said, but deputies responsible for many parts of Lake Washington can spend only a limited amount of time in Juanita Bay.
Many Juanita Bay residents, in the meantime, are impatient.
“We could close all the doors and all the windows of this house and sit in one of my daughters’ bedrooms back off the front of the house and you could sing along to the lyrics. It really is that loud,” said Pantley’s neighbor, Brent Anderson.
In recent years, Anderson said, Juanita Bay has become louder and rowdier, becoming “the Tortuga or Cancún of Lake Washington.”
He said he no longer calls the police about the noise — “but I have to call when I see somebody weaving through those stacks of boats at 35-40 miles per hour in a dual-engine ocean racing boat that’s the big popular thing now. Seriously, they’re going to have another fatality out there.”
There are boating-related problems even outside boating season. Eastside Audubon Society board member Tim McGruder said he was concerned about aggressive boaters disturbing wildlife around Juanita Bay Park.
Pantley said fewer trumpeter swans stayed in Juanita Bay last winter, a year after he witnessed a Jet Ski operator chasing a group of swans during the Christmas holiday season.
Penny Sweet, who chairs the City Council’s public-safety committee and who hears boat engines “loud and clear” from her house several blocks away, said she expects the council to adopt a noise ordinance this spring and then see if additional measures are needed.
Rafting “sort of looks like a party,” and may ultimately have to be regulated, she said.
To those who say lakefront property owners should just accept the noise, “It’s just not fair,” Sweet said.
“Some of them have been living on the lake for 20 or 40 years. I just don’t happen to agree that therefore you sacrifice your ability to hear a conversation in your own backyard.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org