Catalina Barge Owner Prepares to Ship Out

Times Staff Writer

Any day now, Catalina Island's only big boat-repair outfit will be barging out of town.

Sherrill's Marine Services, a family-run business for decades in Avalon Harbor, must be gone by Feb. 5 -- the latest wrinkle in a dispute that has roiled the island town of 3,500 residents since summer.

The impending departure of Robert Sherrill's tri-level repair barge -- which grew from a greasy houseboat into what resembles a floating condo -- may settle a matter the owner feared would wind up in a costly, bitter court fight with the city of Avalon.

"Each time we talked, the city or some other person had a different idea about what I was supposed to do to make [the barge] look better," Sherrill said. "I was not going to be able to please 3,500 people."

In the near future, the barge will be taken to Los Angeles Harbor and stored. Sherrill does not know where it will go from there. "I wasn't going to tear it apart and rebuild it," he said. "Someone will want it. I just have to find them."

The waters around Sherrill's Marine Services rig were calm until one morning in August, when the sun rose on the island two dozen miles off Long Beach and residents discovered that a much taller barge had replaced the old one. The new vessel was anchored to Sherrill's 60-foot mooring off the landmark Casino featured on many Catalina postcards.

It had arched windows and balconies. It was painted in creamy hues -- all to better blend in with the Art Deco Casino, Sherrill thought. It was bigger to house his wife and two children, as well as mechanics brought in during peak summer months when the island's population swells and as many as 500 boats jam the harbor.

Some people hated it. Others stormed City Council chambers to defend the business. Both sides wrote letters and signed petitions. Boaters on and off the island were particularly supportive of Sherrill and his part of the business that rescues vessels around the clock.

Some residents said they weren't crazy about the stout houseboat, but they blamed city officials for allowing Sherrill to spend about $700,000 to build the barge before deciding that it had to go.

The city claimed it had told Sherrill that he could replace his old barge but that it could not grow substantially in size.

Sherrill, who grew up working on his father's barge until he bought him out years ago, says he never thought that replacing his 23-foot-high barge with one 7 feet taller would bother anyone. The boat's top two floors include 1,600 square feet of living space.

Late last year, the City Council considered pulling Sherrill's business permit but after an emotional public hearing decided instead to bar any occupancy of the barge until its owner worked with the city to reduce its scale or improve its appearance.

That, Sherrill said, proved to be a nearly impossible job.

In the meantime, Sherrill, his wife and two teenage children were forced to live on the family's savings. They moved into a 40-foot boat because they had sold their island condo years ago and now were priced out of the market.

By January the family had moved into a rental because, he said with a good-natured laugh, "we were killing each other on the boat."

Tired of the tension and uncertainty, and not wanting to live with a cloud over his family, Sherrill struck a deal with the city this month.

As part of the agreement, Sherrill will drop any potential legal action against the city. He also agreed to move the barge by Feb. 5 at least three miles from Avalon.

In return, the city gave Sherrill a 70-foot mooring in trade for the one where his barge now rests. Both sides will cover their own legal costs.

Word of the settlement surprised some residents because rights to yearly leases on the island's moorings rarely open up.

But Sherrill counters that his family had a 70-foot mooring in the center of the harbor for years until the city asked the family to move to the smaller mooring near the Casino. The deal, he said, simply restores the family's original holdings.

Sherrill has since advertised the newly acquired mooring for sale at $2.2 million or best offer.

A more pressing problem for Avalon residents and visitors is that they might be facing the summer season without a boat-repair operation. Sherrill said one option he has discussed with Avalon officials is for the city to build its own repair barge and hire him to run it.

Meanwhile, he doesn't know when he will tow his barge away from the island, but Sherrill has an idea for a fitting exit: "I think sneaking it away under cover of darkness would be good."

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