Florida voters’ approval will benefit boaters

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Amendment 6 requires counties to assess prime land at current use, instead of ‘highest and best’ use

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 a state constitutional amendment to help preserve working waterfront .

Rybovich Spencer's boatyard/marina in West Palm Beach, Fla., underwent extensive renovation in 2005.

“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 county assessors to set the taxable value of a working waterfront property 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 Florida 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 (MIAF). “That’s a landslide.” It also was the highest margin of voter support of any of the six constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The vote was 4,058,582 for the amendment, 2,663,346 against it.

Sprague says the industry had little money to promote the measure, but waged an intensive grassroots campaign in the final month before the election.

He notes that industry stalwarts put out signs, bought advertising on billboards, educated employees on the issue, 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. “[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 [to the waterfront].”

In a state where boating is a way of life, advocates of the amendment argued that marine business owners are under extreme economic pressure to convert their marinas, boatyards, drystacks, 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 (MIASF). As unemployment across the state inches up, Connell says the vote wasn’t just about boats and boating. “We need to preserve the jobs. We need to keep the boatyards and marinas to service the boats, but really it’s about jobs.”

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

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

“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 adds that 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.

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.

“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.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.

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