SOMERSET — Marina operators were pleased about the potential for a new business opportunity when Congress authorized floating cabins last year on lakes in the Cumberland River basin, including Lake Cumberland.
Now, however, some operators are objecting to guidelines on the cabins set out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the lakes.
The concern is that the rules are too strict and costly to meet, making it harder for marinas to capitalize on a chance to boost revenue after years in which the recession and other factors hurt business.
"It's overreach by the Corps," Michele Edwards, executive director of the Kentucky and Tennessee marina associations, said of the rules.
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The operators are mounting an effort to get the rules changed through comments to the Corps and appeals to members of Congress.
Mike Abernathy, head of the real-estate division for the Corps district that covers the Cumberland River Basin, said officials are discussing comments received at public meetings about the cabins.
There may be opportunities to clarify the rules, which are designed to protect health and safety on the lakes, Abernathy said.
However, the basic rules the agency put out were intended to be final, he said.
Floating cabins are just what they sound like — small houses that sit on hulls in the water.
Lee's Ford Resort Marina, on Lake Cumberland in Pulaski County, has one that measures 575 square feet on the first floor and 364 square feet on the second, with a 15-foot-by-20-foot deck and sleeping capacity for seven or eight people, according to the marina.
J.D. Hamilton, president of the marina, had the cabin built before the Corps of Engineers rules came out.
The cabins are not as large as many houseboats. Their primary purpose is overnight habitation, not recreational boating as with a houseboat, according to the Corps' definition.
The cabins don't have to have motors, but they can be fitted with them.
On-water cabins for years have been allowed at some lakes, including Corps of Engineers lakes in Kentucky controlled by the agency's Louisville district such as Green River Lake in Taylor and Adair counties.
However, the Corps of Engineers district based in Nashville had not allowed them on the 10 lakes it controls along the Cumberland River, which stretches across southeastern and southern Kentucky, curves through central Tennessee and then turns north through Western Kentucky.
That changed last year.
At the urging of marina operators and others, Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to allow floating cabins at marinas in the Cumberland River basin. The language was included in a bill authorizing the agency's work.
Hamilton said he and others were looking for a way to increase business after some lean years.
Visitation at Lake Cumberland suffered after the Corps made an emergency decision in January 2007 to quickly lower the water level because engineers said leaks under the earthen section of Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the lake, created a high risk of failure.
In addition to causing costly work for marinas to move docks and utilities, the drawdown, which lasted for years, created a false perception for some people that there wasn't enough water left at the lake for boating and waterskiing.
The steep national recession that began in 2008 also hurt at Lake Cumberland and other reservoirs in the basin.
There were 11 commercial marinas on Lake Cumberland before the drawdown. Several closed, went through bankruptcy or were forced to sell because of financial problems.
Other businesses dependent on the lake suffered as well.
The Corps of Engineers allowed the water level at Lake Cumberland to return to the normal summer level in 2014 after contractors built a massive concrete wall inside the earthen dam to cut off leaks.
Hamilton said floating cabins have the potential to increase overnight visitation.
That's important because a tourist who stays overnight spends seven or eight times more money than a day visitor, not just on lodging but things such as food and gas, Hamilton said.
"The key economic driver is overnight visitation," said Hamilton, who also is president of the Kentucky Marina Association.
Marinas typically have cabins or lodges, and also rent houseboats, but floating cabins have been a popular option on some lakes, said Edwards, head of the Kentucky and Tennessee marina associations.
Hamilton said the cost of renting a houseboat can be thousands of dollars for a three-day stay, putting the chance to stay overnight on the water beyond the means of many people.
Marinas can rent floating cabins for less, in part because they cost far less to build, Hamilton said.
The floating cabins could bring more money for marinas at a time when there are still empty boat slips at Lake Cumberland and elsewhere, Hamilton said.
"We're just saying let us innovate and create," he said.
It will be harder to do that under the rules put forth by the Nashville Corps of Engineers office, some marina operators say.
The agency drafted the rules — called "implementation guidance" — to carry out the law Congress passed.
Hamilton and Edwards said marina operators have cited several concerns, such as a rule that floating cabins would have to be served by separate docks, adding to the cost of putting them in.
Adding floating cabins would require a lease renewal — unlike adding houseboats — and operators understand they would have to pay the Corps of Engineers for that process, Edwards said.
In addition, operators would be required to begin paying all employees a federal minimum wage of $10.10 an hour under a lease revision to add floating cabins — another added cost, Edwards said.
Yet another provision would bar renters from waiving marina operators' liability for the acts of the renters, Hamilton said.
The rules also would bar marinas from renting a cabin to anyone for more than 30 days in any period of 60 consecutive days, with the same limit on renting a slip to the owner of a private floating cabin.
That would essentially bar private ownership, because no one would want the expense of moving a cabin every 30 days, Hamilton said.
Marina operators argue many of the rules are unneeded because under the law, floating cabins would have to meet Coast Guard safety and other specifications.
"It's just the totality of it" that makes the Corps guidelines onerous, Hamilton said.
The rules differ from those the Louisville district of the Corps of Engineers has for floating cabins on lakes it oversees.
For instance, several of the 11 floating cabins at Green River Marina, which is on Green River Lake, are privately owned, and there is no rule requiring them to be moved periodically, said marina manager Dustin Martin.
The Corps' Abernathy said the rule against long-term rentals for floating cabins on Cumberland River reservoirs is part of the ban on private, exclusive use of the lake.
"We operate and maintain the lakes for the benefit of the recreating public," he said.
Abernathy acknowledged there are different rules for floating cabins in different Corps of Engineers districts.
The Nashville district developed rules for the Cumberland River basin in response to the law passed last year, which was specific to the Cumberland River basin, he said.
The rules include a provision under which marina operators could seek variances, he said.
Abernathy said marina owners won't have to get new leases to add floating cabins, but will have to amend their leases.
Abernathy said there was support for the rules at some public meetings. At least two marina operators said they would submit requests for cabins, he said. Those operators were not on Lake Cumberland, he said.
Bill Gary, with Green Turtle Bay Resort & Marina on Lake Barkley, said the Corps of Engineers rules could be seen as too demanding, but that an official said the agency would work with marina operators.
"All opportunity has caveats," Gary said.
Still, Hamilton said there shouldn't be as much red tape to achieve what federal lawmakers intended to let marina operators do.
"It's just a common-sense approach that ought to be Mom, God and apple pie," he said. "We're just trying to open up access."