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Industry leaders savor Florida victory

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Working on a shoestring budget, the marine community showed voters the value
of working waterfronts, and they responded by passing Amendment 6


Despite unremitting bad news about the economy, Florida’s marine industry found reason to celebrate after the Nov. 4 elections, as Floridians voted to adopt an amendment to the state constitution to help preserve working waterfront.

“We’re thankful for the public of Florida — that they came through,” says John Sprague, who worked three years to get Amendment 6 on the ballot.

The amendment requires country assessors to set the taxable value of working waterfront on the basis of its actual use instead of its “highest and best” use. The measure passed with the support of 70.5 percent of the voters.

“I was kind of amazed that we were at 70 percent,” says Sprague, a Palm Beach County marina owner and government affairs chairman of the Marine Industries Association of Florida. “That’s a landslide. The vote was 4,058,582 for the amendment; 2,663,346 against it.”

The margin of voter support was the highest of any of the six constitutional amendments on the ballot.

A ‘Herculean’ effort
Sprague says the industry had little money to promote the measure, but waged an intense grassroots campaign in the final month. Industry stalwarts, he says, put out signs, bought advertising on billboards, educated employees, lobbied neighbors, and passed out literature at grocery stores, PTA meetings and to parents of trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

“It was really a grassroots effort,” he says.

With a $20,000 budget, the effort to win passage was “Herculean,” says Marty Levan, a dockominium developer and president of the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast. “Last night [as voter returns came in], I was not sure what was going to happen.” He says he was “flummoxed” by the overwhelmingly favorable vote — but also “deeply gratified.”

“It was critically important that we have this relief,” he says. “It will help businesses survive and also maintain and improve public access.”

In a state where boating is a way of life, advocates of the amendment argued that marine business owners are under extreme pressure to convert their marinas, boatyards, dry stacks, commercial fishing and other marine-related facilities to other more profitable uses because of high waterfront taxes that reflect the value of neighboring condominiums and other luxury developments.

“In the last few years, we’ve lost a lot of working waterfront that has been turned into condominiums,” says J.J. Connell, a yacht broker and president of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. As unemployment across the state inches up, Connell says the vote wasn’t just about boats and boating, but about jobs. “We need to preserve the jobs. We need to keep the boatyards and marinas to service the boats, but really it’s about jobs.”

An $18.2 billion business
Florida’s marine industry generates $18.2 billion annually and 220,000 jobs, Levan says.

“It surpasses the citrus and cruise ship industries combined,” he points out.

“I’m ecstatic over Amendment 6,” says Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, chairman of Save Our Waterfront political committee. “[Its passage] speaks volumes for [the importance of] the marine industry and working waterfront in Florida. It’s going to do a tremendous amount to stabilize this industry and hopefully prevent it from deteriorating any further, and enable it to flourish.”

Nancy Chambers, a controller for the Marine Industries of South Florida, button-holed voters outside a polling place on Election Day to ask them to vote for the amendment. “A lot of them stopped and let me explain, and when they came out [after voting] told me, ‘We voted your way,’ ” she says.

She says the measure made sense to voters.

Sprague says the Florida legislature now must adopt a law implementing the amendment. He expected a draft measure to be on the table by mid-November.

“Florida is on the cutting edge of boating access issues,” Sprague says. The next big push: shaping a state regulation to promote development of mooring fields. He says this will increase Florida’s boat storage capacity and water access.

He says the valuation of working waterfront for tax purposes at highest and best use amounted to “condemnation by taxation. That’s what it was.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.


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