Anchorage conflicts sail off to Florida lawmakers
Boats at anchor offer a picture-perfect vista of Island life — an idyllic time filled with soft breezes, good company and the warm glow of a sunrise or sunset dipping beneath the horizon.
But also looming on the horizon for vessels parked near the shore is a raft of regulations that could topple the moored ships in local, state or federal waters.
The battle between on-the-water boatowners and on-the-land waterfront homeowners has festered for decades. All too often the fight is a case of the haves versus the have nots.
You’ve got some guy who spent a zillion dollars on his prime waterfront home. He’s got a mortgage, insurance bills, landscaping expenses and all the other financial accoutrements associated with living his watery dream.
And what does he see one morning upon awakening? Some guy with a boat anchored just off his seawall, enjoying his view without all that financial baggage. Yikes!
Unfortunately for Joe the Homeowner, the waters where his new neighbor resides are sometimes murky when it comes to who owns what. The water is pretty much public domain. The bottom under the water — where the anchor of Joe the Boater has his vessel moored — can belong to city, state, federal or some other entity. Sometimes enforcement is possible, sometimes it’s troublesome. Invariably, it seems, it’s time consuming.
The problem of errant boaters taking up residence in nearshore waters is exacerbated by their numbers. A single zillion-dollar sailboat moored off the shore isn’t usually a cause for a cry for enforcement help. Multiply that single boat by a score or more, though, and have them be less than fine sailing craft captained by outstanding sailors, and the problem is … well, a problem.
Some boaters are less than stellar when it comes to the condition of their vessels, the shape of their anchor lines or rodes, the mandatory rules of seamanship regarding lights at night, the placement of the anchorage away from fragile bottom features like seagrass beds or coral, and the disposal of garbage and waste.
If the adage of everything running downstream is true, then a corollary of all marine debris ending up on shore also seems to be true.
Government has addressed the matter of boaters and homeowners in a surprisingly gentile manner as far as the government types are concerned. Most jurisdictions limit the time a boat can spend at anchor to no more than a few days.
Some waterfront jurisdictions have established anchorages or mooring fields that are regulated to a variety of levels. Regulation can be as benign as simply setting aside a swath of water and saying “go there, and play nice.”
Sometimes the anchorages have more stringent requirements, with charges based on length of vessel and length of stay. Harbormasters are on hand to patrol the offshore fields, citing those not meeting the requirements with warnings or fines.
Some areas even welcome the boaters to specific areas and offset the offshore “rent” with docking space for small boats, showers, laundry facilities, rest rooms and sundries.
The rent derived from the boaters is used to maintain and upgrade the facilities and, if the revenue is sufficient, can be used to reduce taxes for Joe the Homeowner.
One of the first established mooring fields in Florida, and one of the nicest, is in Vero Beach on the east coast. The city is a port of call for yachting snowbirds traversing the Eastern Seaboard, and the mooring field of 100 or so spaces features established anchorages and buoys for boats of all sizes.
By the way, an anchorage is simply an official restricted area where boaters would use their own ground tackle — anchors and rodes — to secure the boat in position. A mooring field is a controlled area where boaters tie up to a floating buoy that is attached to the bottom by a heavy weight or some type of auger system, which would have to be provided and maintained, and boaters would be assigned their position by a harbormaster.
Vero Beach has a nice deepwater mooring field adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway, tucked away between two big mangrove islands.
On shore, boaters can use rest rooms, showers and laundry. Bikes are available at a nominal price for shopping at nearby stores. There is a small market for essentials, plus a little snack bar and clubhouse for chatting with fellow waterfolks. It’s a quiet, peaceful place.
Closer to home, Sarasota should have similar facilities finished and operational next year. It’s been a long process — 19 years at least — but the area just south of Marina Jack Restaurant on the bayfront will be a mooring field of 100-plus vessels of all sizes.
And even closer to home is a planned managed anchorage and mooring field south of the Historic Bridge Street Pier in Bradenton Beach. That field’s configuration is under discussion as to mooring or anchorage permutations, but shoreside facilities have been completed as part of the renovations to the pier in the past few years.
Preliminary assessments of the bay bottom in the area indicate it could accommodate upwards of a score or so boats, depending on vessel size.
Problems in water world
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has recognized that “conflicts” exist between the boating and homeowning communities.
Boaters fear that their relatively unfettered lifestyle will be overly regulated by government. Government officials argue that homeowners should have protection from outlaw boaters who throw trash in the water, dump raw sewerage overboard and have poor-quality mooring lines that snap during storms, leaving boats adrift to damage seawalls and other vessels.
FWC officials last week addressed the matter of vessels and moorings. Draft legislation to create a pilot program to test boat anchoring and mooring regulations in various parts of the state, among other provisions, will be submitted to the Florida Legislature in 2009.
“Public access sites for boaters have diminished because of development of waterfront properties and privatization of boating facilities,” said FWC Major Paul Ouellette. “As a result, some boaters have anchored or moored their vessels on the water permanently, or for long periods, and often behind waterfront properties. The vessels can become derelict, create navigational hazards and property damage, harm seagrass and corals, and create pollution.
“Under pressure from homeowners and others, local governments implemented local codes and ordinances that are in conflict with state laws. However, for boaters it was confusing because they often experienced local jurisdictions with different rules and regulations.”
Ouellette admits that the conflict between Joe the Homeowner and Joe the Boater is a real problem. “There are definitely two sides to this," he said. “Boaters believe boating is the last bastion of freedom, but waterfront property owners do not want to deal with a boat's pollution, noise and other problems — especially when boats are practically anchored in their back yards.”
Adding to the murky situation is jurisdictional discrepancies that often plague the cruising boater. It’s hard to play by the rules when the rules keep changing, and all too often where and how you spend one night on the water can vary the next evening.
“The situation became especially confusing for boaters as they traveled from county to county and encountered local jurisdictions with inconsistent regulations,” Ouellette said.
“However, based on public input, the FWC is proposing slightly more authority to regulate anchoring and clarify local government authority. Boaters generally felt laws should be overseen by the FWC to ensure uniformity and consistency. But local governments wanted more authority to address problems that were unique to their own communities and fell outside the scope of what the state can enforce.”
A total overhaul of state regulations addressing mooring or anchoring of boaters is expected next year, with more changes anticipated over time.
“As the population of Florida boaters increases, we will continue to have to revise our statutes and provide and improve boating access,” Ouellette concluded. “Freedom to navigate must be weighed against growth management so boating isn't just for the elite.”
The formal start of the City of Sarasota mooring field debate began in 1990. However, its genesis came from a gentleman named Eli and his scruffy little houseboat several years earlier.
Eli, with his long hair and scraggy beard, tucked his little homemade houseboat into a perfect little cove just a bit east of St. Armands in Sarasota. It was an ideal spot: protected from high winds and rough surf, screened from the road by pines, a short bike ride from downtown or the beach or the shops of St. Armands Circle.
Unfortunately for Eli, his new home was not screened from bayfront homeowners, one of whom was a state representative. Also unfortunate for the free-spirited Eli was his habit of rising with the sun and strolling naked to the bow of his little boat to greet the new day.
The Republican state representative didn’t appreciate Eli’s morning ablutions. He also didn’t appreciate his wife’s keen attention to Eli’s morning ritual.
What at first appeared to be a simple problem of rousting a guy and his boat soon turned into a legal morass when it was discovered that the city had no regulations to deal with Eli and his Constitutional rights. Ordinances were adopted, challenged, thrown out by the courts, appealed to higher courts, modified … it probably would still be going on if Eli’s boat hadn’t sunk and he moved away to a teepee on North Lido Beach, there to start another problem which is better suited for another column.