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City's dispute with boat dweller escalates to $1 million claim

Published: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 9:07 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 1:15 p.m.

Both the City of Petaluma and James Proctor — a man living onboard his boat moored at the Turning Basin — have recently ratcheted up their efforts in a dispute over whether or not Proctor should be allowed to stay docked on city property.

City officials have escalated their attempts to force Proctor — who they say is living illegally onboard his boat — to leave city docks. This effort, which has come in the form of fines, ticketing and criminal charges, has caused Proctor to file a $1 million claim of harassment and emotional distress against several members of city staff and a Petaluma police officer.

The city has been trying to evict Proctor, who has lived on his boat in both the Turning Basin and the Petaluma Marina for more than a decade, from both city-run waterways since August. What began as requests from the city for Proctor to move his broken-down vessel from the Turning Basin has turned into the city fining Proctor for not leaving, taking out a lien against his boat, and most recently, filing criminal charges against him for allegedly stealing utilities — a misdemeanor criminal offense.

“The police pulled the electrical cord out of the box I've been hooked into for three years and told me that if I continued to use the electricity, I'd be arrested,” said Proctor last week. “It's freezing at night and I've caught a severe cold without the heat.”

Proctor, a 64-year-old man in ailing health, says he is trying to vacate the docks but that he has just finished healing from a severe staph infection and pneumonia. He was scheduled to have knee replacement surgery, but has postponed it in an effort to move out of Petaluma's waterways.

“I've gotten one of the engines on my boat running, and will hopefully have the other one up and going soon,” said Proctor. “The sooner I can get going, the better.”

But because of Proctor's long history of not leaving on dates he's promised to in the past, city staff is not convinced he will go without the additional threat of legal action.

“He keeps saying he's going to get his boat fixed and get moving, and we keep waiting,” said Public Works Director Dan St. John. “We have a lot of compassion for him and once he is gone, we'll do the best we can to work with him on his fines.”

For years, Proctor paid the city monthly rent to dock his boat at the Turning Basin, but has never been officially granted permission to live full-time onboard his vessel there. Despite a lack of official city approval, Proctor managed to reside in the marina for seven years and the Turning Basin for the past three.

But a recent effort to clean up the Petaluma Marina and Turning Basin has prompted city staff to move forward with evicting people living on their boats without city approval, including Proctor. Proctor said the city recently stopped accepting his monthly checks for docking his boat.

“It's not fair because I pay my rent; they just won't cash it,” he said.

But St. John pointed out that Proctor has continued to reside in city waterways without a lease agreement and that he has not been in compliance with municipal codes for quite some time. “It's really a police matter at this point,” said St. John.

And although police dutifully fine Proctor for violating laws, they only do so occasionally — presumably in the hopes that Proctor will eventually move on.

“We're continuing with trying to evict him, but we appreciate the tough situation he's in,” said Police Lt. Tim Lyons.

Officers have issued citations to Proctor several times since August, mostly on a monthly basis.

Meanwhile, Proctor said he is continuing to work on his boat and hopes to be out of the Turning Basin by next week, but that he can no longer endure the “harassment by the City of Petaluma and the Petaluma Police Department.” Proctor's claim is currently being reviewed by the city's risk management team.

St. John couldn't comment on the claim, but said that as soon as Proctor leaves, he will do as much as he can to help with his fines and criminal charges. “But we can't do anything until he is gone,” added St. John.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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