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Florida’s anchorage wars

Homeowner-boater tensions flare anew as state considers returning regulatory authority to cities
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The owner of this Miami Beach mansion waged a well-publicized battle with cruisers two years ago, anchoring 19 Laser Picos off his home to keep people from dropping hook there.

The owner of this Miami Beach mansion waged a well-publicized battle with cruisers two years ago, anchoring 19 Laser Picos off his home to keep people from dropping hook there.

Florida is a cruiser’s mecca, and cruisers are cash in the till for the Sunshine State’s marine businesses. Yet after 25 years of sparring among cruisers, waterfront homeowners and state and local governments, anchorage rights remain a contentious issue.

“Eleven thousand snowbirds visit Florida each year, and there are thousands and thousands more who dream of doing that. Florida is where they want to come,” says David Kennedy, BoatUS senior program coordinator for government affairs, speaking at a Sept. 3 workshop in Vero Beach to discuss possible changes to Florida anchoring law. The changes — still very much in the vetting stage — would return to localities some of the authority they used to have to restrict anchoring on their waters.

“The state has got to have options for active, responsible boaters — moorings, anchorages and marinas,” Kennedy said at the meeting, one of two that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission convened. (The other one was in Bradenton.)

This one drew about 60 boaters, a few homeowners and several local government speakers.

Boaters attending the workshop were generally resistant to giving local government any authority to restrict anchoring for fear of returning to a day when there was a mishmash of literally dozens of local anchoring ordinances up and down the Intracoastal Waterway — 24-hour restrictions, 36-hour restrictions, no anchoring off the seawalls of posh waterfront homes, no anchoring anywhere at all in the city. “If the state of Florida has authority to regulate anchoring, it should be uniform,” says Howard Sutter, a Jacksonville maritime lawyer. ”The biggest problem that a lot of people have [with the proposed changes] is lack of uniformity.

“Uniformity, uniformity, uniformity,” he stressed.

Cruising boaters — locals, snowbirds and visitors from around the world who cruise Florida for its natural beauty, bountiful waters and great getaways — thought the era of anchoring prohibitions might be drawing to a close in 2009 when the legislature clarified Florida’s anchoring law, changing the definition of liveaboard vessel to “any vessel used solely as a residence and not for navigation.” This definition effectively excludes cruising boats, and counties and municipalities, which until then had based their anchoring restrictions on the liveaboard law, could no longer stop cruising boats from anchoring in their waters.

Instead of restricting anchoring, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encouraged localities to set up managed mooring fields where cruisers could tie up for a reasonable fee. The idea was to provide safe, clean, managed moorings for boaters to tie up and ease the demand for anchorages.

But the mooring fields — some of them, anyway — have turned out to be rather exclusive enclaves. Cruisers told of $400-a-month mooring fees, not their idea of “reasonable.”

Meanwhile, waterfront homeowners have become restive. Now that local governments have no authority to regulate anchoring, they gripe to their councilmen and commissioners about anchor-outs virtually camping in their backyards.

“During the winter — December to March — boats drop anchor for three and four months at a time [behind my house],” says Miami Beach waterfront homeowner Mark Gold, one of several homeowners who attended the Vero Beach workshop. “They’re using their boat as a residence.”

He says he and his family put up with barking dogs, loud music, sewage discharge into the water behind their house and loss of privacy.

“I’m a boater,” Gold says. “I believe in boaters’ rights to travel the world. But they don’t need to be coming within 15 feet of my backyard for months at a time.”

Responding to a state bill this year, which did not pass, but would have authorized 64 municipalities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to regulate overnight anchoring and would have allowed them to keep anchored boats at an unspecified distance from the seawalls of waterfront homes, the FWC has set out to survey boaters, homeowners and marine businesses to find common ground for proceeding with anchoring regulation.

“Local governments have needs and desires, and boaters have needs and desires,” says FWC Maj. Richard Moore. Finding a balance between protecting boaters’ anchoring rights and satisfying localities’ concerns is a “big challenge,” he says.

“You are politically active, you obey the laws, you are civic-minded,” Jose Jimenez, Miami Beach’s assistant city manager, told the boaters at the workshop. “We don’t want to punish law-abiding citizens. We want to come up with ways we can coexist and get rid of these bad apples. We’re not looking to just bar you from Miami Beach.”

And who are the bad apples? Owners of derelict boats are a big problem on Florida’s waters, says West Palm Beach marina consultant John Sprague. He says there needs to be better enforcement of derelict-boat laws, although there’s little money to do that. He warned boaters to be vigilant because counties and municipalities have used the need to address the profusion of derelict boats as a pretext to prohibit all anchoring.

“[The legislature] will give carte blanche to local government to do what they want,” he says.

Several cruisers noted that local government already has the police powers to deal with the scofflaws who give all anchor-outs a bad name with their bad behavior: the excessive noise, the derelict boats, the peeping toms and illegal sewage discharges.

Others are worried about the precedent of waterfront homeowners lobbying their city council and county commission to extend their private property rights beyond the seawall to the water and infringing on cruisers’ rights to navigate and anchor on waters that are held in trust for public use.

“I think at its core this is a fundamental problem of violating the public trust,” says Fred Braman, a retired Navy officer. “They are transferring the rights of boaters to well-heeled waterfront property owners.”

In a survey of its 8,000 members, the Seven Seas Cruising Association found that 89 percent of its members cruise Florida. Sixty percent of those who responded say that if a buffer between anchored boats and the seawalls of waterfront homes is necessary, it should be less than 50 feet, association representative Philip Johnson says.

In a handout at the workshop, the FWC proposed granting local government authority to regulate anchoring “in limited, prescribed situations.”

As a starting point for discussion, the FWC asked attendees what they thought about giving local government the authority to prohibit anchoring within 150 feet of mooring fields, boat ramps, marinas and other public launching or landing facilities and overnighting within 300 feet of waterfront residential property or in a location that restricts use of attached docks or boat lifts.

The agency also proposed local authority to prohibit storing a vessel on Florida waters if it can’t navigate under its own power, takes on water without the ability to dewater, has interior spaces open to the elements, is leaking contaminants, has broken loose or is in danger of doing so, violates sanitation laws, or is listing or aground. If a local government needs to regulate anchoring in any way other than those specified, it would have to apply for FWC approval.

After speaking at the second public meeting in Bradenton, lawyer and liveaboard Jay Campbell noted — as some in Vero Beach did — in a letter to the FWC that its proposals collide head-on with the public trust doctrine, aren’t necessary because of existing laws they could use to deal with the “bad apples” and seem to respond to an elite class who don’t like boaters sharing the water behind their homes.

“The proposals seem to be unlawful, poorly thought out, against the interest of Florida citizens who are boaters, against the interests of Florida businesses that cater to boaters and in support of only a few wealthy landowners represented by legislators who control the FWC funding,” Campbell wrote. “This is not how laws and regulations should be developed and implemented to support the public interest.”

Moore asked those who attended the meetings to turn in written comments responding to the FWC’s proposals. He says the legislature almost certainly will consider another bill returning some authority to local governments to regulate anchoring.

“We know that by 2017 the issue will be back up in front of the legislature again,” he says. “We’re starting the dialogue early.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.



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