Anchoring ordinance doesn't hold water - Soundings Online

Anchoring ordinance doesn't hold water

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Vincent Sibilla doesn’t consider himself an American hero, just an American.

Americans fight for their rights, says the 68-year-old Sibilla, of Stuart, Fla.

Over the last four years, Sibilla has been arrested four times, convicted once and sentenced to 21 days in jail, plus time served — just for anchoring his boat in Stuart.

Vincent Sibilla doesn’t consider himself an American hero, just an American.

Americans fight for their rights, says the 68-year-old Sibilla, of Stuart, Fla.

Over the last four years, Sibilla has been arrested four times, convicted once and sentenced to 21 days in jail, plus time served — just for anchoring his boat in Stuart.

Now Sibilla has won one. On May 16, the city of Stuart settled a federal civil rights lawsuit Sibilla filed, seeking damages for his arrest four months earlier under the city’s anchorage law. Sibilla won an apology from Stuart for the arrest, $2,000 in damages and $3,000 in attorney’s fees (his attorney, Barbara Cook, represented him pro bono), plus some promises: The city will change its anchorage ordinance so it complies with state anchoring laws, it will stop enforcing its existing law, and it will train its police in proper enforcement of the new law.

“They didn’t want to go to federal court because they knew they were wrong from the get-go,” says Sibilla, a retired construction worker and owner of a 1971 Concord 31 cabin cruiser, which he anchors outside the city-operated mooring field. Those are waters where the city says he can only anchor for 10 days. After that, the boat is no longer “in navigation,” according to Stuart’s anchorage law, and either must leave the city or move to a dock or city-owned mooring.

Sibilla refused to accept Stuart’s definition of “in navigation.”

“I got arrested three times trying to fight this,” he says.

Then last January, after 44 days away cruising, Sibilla says he anchored in his customary spot and was arrested less than an hour after dropping the hook. Even under the ordinance, he should have had a 10-day grace period.

“They put me in handcuffs and took me to jail,” he says.

Police accused him of living on his boat, which he wasn’t. He lives at the FirstUnitedMethodistChurch’s Mission House, where he volunteers daily in the church’s ministry to local families who need food or financial assistance.

Sibilla figures he was just getting hassled.

The settlement isn’t just a victory for Sibilla, but a wake-up call to other Florida counties and municipalities to check their anchorage laws for consistency with state and federal statutes, says Joanne Foster, Cook’s boss at the Stuart law firm Guy, Yudin & Foster (Cook was unavailable for comment).

Foster says Stuart’s ordinance ran afoul of state and federal statutes on several counts. Police arrested Sibilla for anchoring on the Okeechobee Waterway in Stuart, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Florida statute 327.60 says localities can’t enact laws regulating the operation or equipment of vessels on the Florida ICW. The Stuart ordinance also may run afoul of another provision of 327.60 that prohibits local authorities from regulating the anchorage of non-liveboard vessels outside regulated mooring fields when they are “in navigation.” Sibilla’s boat wasn’t a liveaboard vessel (defined by state law as one used solely as a residence), and the U.S. Supreme Court in a recent case (Stewart v. Dutra, 2005) “clearly stated that a vessel, once launched and placed in navigation, remains in navigation as long as it is ‘used, or capable of being used, for maritime transportation on the water,’ ” according to a piece Cook wrote about the case for BoatU.S. Magazine. “The question remains in all cases whether the watercraft’s use as ‘a means of transportation on water’ is a practical possibility or merely a theoretical one,” she wrote.

Sibilla’s boat was well able to navigate when he was arrested.

Taking a boat out of navigation by law after 10 days at anchor — as the Stuart ordinance does — “just flies in the face of general maritime law,” Foster says.

And, finally, she says Stuart’s penalty for illegal anchoring — a $500 fine or 60 days in jail or both — is excessive for what is tantamount to a parking violation.

“There are clearly some civil rights issues here,” she says.

Local anchorage ordinances in Florida are on the defensive after years of boaters asserting — without much result — that the local prohibitions are out of synch with state and maritime law governing anchoring and navigation.

Last October, Collier County Circuit Court Judge Rob Crown agreed with cruisers in a case involving MarcoIsland’s anchoring ordinance, ruling that part of the law is unconstitutional “because it is an unlawful local regulation of publicly owned sovereign waterways in violation of Florida law [327.60].”

Marco’s three-year-old ordinance prohibits boats from anchoring more than 12 hours within 300 feet of shore and sets a 72-hour anchoring limit anywhere in the city. A 72-hour permit can be extended another 72 hours if a boater can show a current sewerage pump-out receipt. Illegal anchorers face a $500 fine and six months in jail. David Dumas, a 65-year-old retiree who lives on MarcoIsland, also forced the issue with an act of civil disobedience, drawing the ticket last January, 18 hours after anchoring his 42-foot Kadey-Krogen on SmokehouseBay.

Foster says many local anchorage ordinances are adopted too quickly and without any understanding of maritime law when waterfront owners cry out for relief because anchored boats are spoiling their view.

“The right to navigate is paramount,” she says. “If you’re a vessel in navigation, you have a right to be on the water.”