Florida anchoring wars are back

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Valerie Jones has been fighting anchorage restrictions on Florida waters for 25 years. The former president of Concerned Boaters, a now-defunct group that advocated for anchoring rights, Jones was one of the 60-odd cruisers attending a workshop in Vero Beach last year to talk about possible changes to Florida’s anchorage law that would return to municipalities some of the authority they used to have to restrict anchoring.

Some homeowners have gone to extraordinalry lengths in the past to keep cruisers from dropping the hook in front of their homes.

Jones once tried to get herself arrested for anchoring in a restricted zone on the Intracoastal Waterway at the Vero Beach City Marina so she could challenge the city’s no-anchoring ordinance in court. “They blinked. I didn’t,” she says. Vero’s marine police never did arrest her, even though she refused to move. Jones says the issue, remarkably, remains unresolved a quarter-century later.

Boaters attending the workshop were generally resistant to giving local governments any authority to restrict anchoring for fear of returning to a day when there was a mishmash of literally dozens of local ordinances up and down the ICW: 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.”

Boaters — locals, snowbirds, 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 the state’s anchoring law, changing the definition of a 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 communities 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 and ease the demand for anchorages.

But the mooring fields — some of them, anyway — have turned out to be rather exclusive enclaves. Cruisers complained about $400-a-month mooring fees (in St. Petersburg) and said that’s not their idea of “reasonable.”

The FWC encourages communities to set up mooring fields to ease the demand for anchorages.

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

Mark Gold says that from December to March, boats anchor for three or four months at a time behind his house. The Miami Beach homeowner was one of several who attended the Vero Beach workshop. “They’re using their boat as a residence,” he says.

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 that never passed — which would have authorized 64 municipalities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to regulate overnight anchoring and allowed them to keep anchored boats at an unspecified distance from the seawalls of waterfront homes — the FWC 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 communities’ 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 the bad apples. We’re not looking to just bar you from Miami Beach.”

And who are the bad apples? Derelict boats are a big problem on Florida waters, according to West Palm Beach marina consultant John Sprague. He says there needs to be better enforcement of derelict-boat laws, though there’s little money to do that. He warned boaters to be vigilant because counties and municipalities have used efforts to rein in derelict boats as a pretext to prohibit 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 misbehavior — the excessive noise-makers, the derelict-boat keepers, the peeping toms and illegal sewage dischargers.

Others worry about the precedent of waterfront homeowners lobbying their city councils and county commissions to extend private property rights beyond the seawall to the water and infringing on cruisers’ right to navigate and anchor on waters 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.”

Cruisers might have to navigate a jumble of ordinances if local governments are given authority to restrict anchoring.

In a survey of its 8,000 members, the Seven Seas Cruising Association found that 89 percent of them cruise Florida, and 60 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, SSCA representative Philip Johnson says.

In a handout at the workshop, the FWC proposed granting local governments the authority to regulate anchoring “in limited, prescribed situations.” As a starting point for discussion, the FWC asked attendees what they thought about giving local governments the authority to prohibit anchoring within 150 feet of mooring fields, boat ramps, marinas and other public launching or landing facilities, and not allowing overnight anchoring within 300 feet of waterfront residential property or in places that restrict the use of docks or boat lifts.

The agency also proposed local authority to prohibit storing a vessel on Florida waters if it isn’t seaworthy. If the boat:

• can’t navigate under its own power

• takes on water and doesn’t have the equipment to dewater

• has interior spaces open to the elements

• is leaking contaminants

• has broken loose from its anchorage or mooring or is in danger of doing so

• violates sanitation laws

• is listing or aground

If a local government needed to restrict anchoring in any way other than those specified, it would have to apply for FWC approval.

After speaking at a second public meeting in Bradenton, lawyer and liveaboard Jay Campbell noted — as some in Vero Beach also did — in a letter to the FWC that its proposals collide head-on with the state’s responsibility to hold its waters in trust for public use and navigation, aren’t necessary because existing laws can 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 which 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 attending the meetings to turn in written comments in a survey elaborating on the FWC’s proposals. He says the legislature almost certainly will consider another bill returning some authority to local government 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.”

The anchoring survey, which closed Dec. 7 on the FWC website, drew 20,000 comments from boaters and other interested parties from all 50 states and even a few foreign countries. “The response has been phenomenal,” says Capt. Gary Klein, the FWC’s supervisor of waterways management. Klein says analysts were digesting the data as the new year began. Though no final decision had been made, he says the results could be available on the FWC website this spring.

Meanwhile, the Florida House of Representatives has created the Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee to deal with transportation and waterway safety issues. Falling under the Economic Opportunities Committee, it likely will be the first legislative committee in the House to deal with FWC-related bills, says the SSCA’s Johnson. He says at least three of the subcommittee members, including the chairman, Rep. Greg Steubbe, a Sarasota Republican, are boaters, and three others voted against the 2014 bill that would have restored local anchoring authority.

“Regulation of anchoring should be kept at the state level,” Johnson says, summarizing the position of the SSCA’s government affairs committee for the 2015 legislative season. And municipalities shouldn’t ask the state for anchoring restrictions, except for “compelling reasons.”

March 2015 issue