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Loss of slips a Florida ‘Epidemic’

Three years ago John Lynn’s boat was “evicted” from a Brevard County, Fla., marina to make way for condominiums.

Speaking at a Working Waterfront Workshop in Orlando Dec. 7, Lynn said loss of affordable slips is becoming epidemic on Florida’s east coast. Four marinas around Cocoa and Merritt Island — three with working boatyards — have closed in recent years while developers build condominiums on the uplands. One marina has re-opened as a “dockominium” with slips for sale instead of for rent. The cheapest slip there is listed for $83,000 for a 30-foot boat. “Most of us normal boat owners can’t afford that kind of an outlay,” Lynn said.

Hosted by the Marine Industries Association of Florida, the workshop drew over 60 attendees — a handful of boaters and the rest marine business people — to talk about loss of Florida slips, ramps and boatyards to condominiums and other high-end development.

Lynn and others told of a feeding frenzy, as marinas and boatyards are gobbled up and their precious waterfront redeveloped for more profitable uses. The loser, Lynn said, is the boat owner “at the bottom of the food chain.” Wet slips for modest-sized boats — 28-, 30-, 35-footers — are being converted to big-boat dockominiums, rack storage is being pushed out by residential condominiums, and boat ramps are in such short supply that trailerable boat owners have to be at the ramp well before dawn on many weekends to find a parking place.

Priced out

Boating in Florida is in danger of becoming a “sport for the wealthy” only, warned John Sprague, a Pahokee marina owner and MIAF member.

“We’re concerned about loss of marinas, and also about boat ramps and boat ramp parking — and boatyards,” said Joe Lewis, a Mount Dora boat dealer, marina owner and MIAF president. “If people don’t have anyplace to work on their boats, we’re going to lose them.”

Boatbuilders and dealers are worried that if people can’t find places to store, launch or repair their boats, they will just stop buying them.

Lewis said he already is feeling the pinch. “I had a sale for a 34-footer,” he said. “A guy was going to buy a boat if I could find him a slip. I couldn’t find him a slip in the Daytona Beach area.”

The sale fell through.

No part of coastal Florida seems immune to the pressure to turn prime waterfront into luxury condos and other high-yielding uses. At the workshop, the bad news about gentrification of working waterfront — waterfront used for such traditional uses as marinas, boatyards and commercial fishing docks and fish houses — was unrelenting.

On Key West’s Stock Island, developers are negotiating to buy Robbie’s Marina, the Keys’ only marina with a 100-ton Travelift and one that often has a 250-boat waiting list for repairs, said Bruce Popham, owner of a Keys boatyard. Developers have talked about building a hotel or condominiums at Robbie’s. If the yard closes, the closest big Travelift is in Havana, Cuba, he said. Boats will have to go to Miami for haulout.

In Tampa-St. Petersburg, developers snapped up eight marinas accounting for 1,750 slips last year, according to Christopher “Kit” Denison, of Marine Realty Inc., a marina brokerage business. The uplands are going to become condos, and most of the slips are likely to become dockominiums, he said. Most will not be for rent to the public.

In Titusville, a 100-slip dry stack marina is going condo, and city efforts to replace those slips by building a public dry stack facility in a waterfront park have been stymied by advocates for a Little League baseball field there. “Unless we do something, we’re not going to be able to find slips,” said Mark Leslie, dockmaster at the Titusville Municipal Marina. “There is a real problem.”

Hurricanes and manatees

April Price, of the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, said 80 percent of coastal slips in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties were destroyed by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne this fall. “Marina owners are getting offers [to buy] every day,” she said. “It’s hard to walk away from that kind of money … I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

On the Indian River, there is no public access at all — no public slips or launch ramps — from Titusville to Melbourne, a distance of about 40 miles on the heavily trafficked Intracoastal Waterway, said Steven Webster, vice president of Citizens for Florida’s Waterways and executive director of the Florida Marine Contractors Association.

He blames the loss of public access on marina conversions and overly restrictive slip permitting rules designed to protect manatees. “We’ve had seven conversions in two years in Brevard County,” he said.

More boats

In Riviera Beach, Marty Murphy’s Cracker Boy Boat Works, a large vessel-repair yard, has been condemned along with 150 small boating-related businesses in a $1.25 billion, 858-acre downtown waterfront redevelopment. The redevelopment, which also will oust 5,100 residents, is supposed to turn a blighted area around with upscale homes, chic retail shops, restaurants, an aquarium, a boardwalk — and 1,500 high-end marina slips, but Murphy says one of the region’s last deep-water repair yards will be lost forever in the transformation.

“We’re hoping for a miracle,” said Murphy, whose family has been there in the marine construction and boatyard business since the early ‘40s.

Though hard data remains sketchy, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the number of commercial boat storage spaces in Florida has remained essentially unchanged since 1987 while boat registrations have increased 51 percent. The tally of fresh- and saltwater marinas has stayed the same; wet slips have increased by about 2,200, and dry storage spaces have declined by about 1,900 — a net gain of about 300 slips over 17 years. During that same time, boat ramp lanes have increased by about 400.

Nowhere to turn

Sprague, offering the industry view, is especially worried about the loss of repair yards because once a yard is gone there is almost no working waterfront left to build new ones. He says something also must be done about the shortage of launch ramps for the growing number of trailerable boats. Others also warned that the acceleration in marina conversions — transforming rental slips, both wet and dry, into expensive boater-owned dockominium slips — is leaving boaters without affordable commercial storage for boats 28 to 35 feet.

Denison says it’s not uncommon in the Keys for a boater to pay for a 40-foot dry-stack slip to accommodate a boat just 30 feet long.

MIAF’s Sprague said waterfront economics and a tough regulatory climate are chiefly responsible for loss of working waterfront.

John Coolahan, a developer for WCI Communities, which builds boating communities, says demographics are creating an insatiable demand for waterfront homes and condominiums and driving up the price of shoreline. “Baby boomers are coming down in record numbers, and they want to live near the water,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Dry-stack solution

Coolahan says dockominium dry-stack marinas are the wave of the future. “That allows you to put 200 boats in a two-acre lot,” he says, but dry-stack barns must be built to withstand hurricanes — 140 mph winds and big tidal surges. None of this comes cheap.

He says a 38-foot dockominium wet slip that sold for $120,000 a few years ago is fetching $260,000 today. A 40-foot dry-stack slip is selling for $130,000. Dry-stack slip rental fees at high-end marinas are headed for $70 a month per foot for a boat 30 feet and larger.

Owners of modest-sized boats are likely to be swamped by this wave. “Those people who need [to pay]$8-a-foot rates are not going to get them,” he said. They will be driven out of the slip market.

Marina permitting, especially that linked to manatee protection, also took its licks at the workshop. Frank Donohue, a consultant in marina conversions from Naples, told of one unbuilt marina that has been stalled 14 years in permitting, costing the developer $5 million. “The prices [there] are going to be astronomical,” he said.

Government’s role

Marine contractor association’s Webster wants to change a state law requiring counties to set slip densities for their waterways based on manatee protection. He says it’s another obstacle to public access.

“I really believe — and we will be offering legislation on this — that over the past 20 years Florida’s manatee-driven policies have made it state policy to limit access,” he said. He says that policy has made slips so scarce that soon only big-boat owners will have them.

The Florida Senate’s Committee on Community Affairs, chaired by Sen. Michael Bennett, released an interim report on working waterfronts in November that recommends the legislature take action to help preserve recreational and commercial fishing facilities in Florida, and improve trailerable boat access by building more boat ramps.

“The governor of the state of Florida and president of the Senate have spoken out adamantly that we in Florida have to take a stand on growth management, and that has a natural tie-in with waterfront access,” said Rep. Kim Berfield, of St. Petersburg, an attendee.

As legislators debate exactly what to do about the loss of working waterfront, the property rights of marina and boatyard owners who expect to cash in on the soaring value of their property will be a contentious issue. Several at the workshop proposed requiring developers who want to take slips or repair yards out of service to provide suitable property elsewhere to replace them so there is no net loss in working waterfront. This drew strong opposition from Tricia Hamilton, a North Miami marina owner. “I would be adamantly opposed to no net loss,” she said. “I don’t want to suffer a government-imposed penalty on use of my land. I’ve bled there.” She says she’s “scared to death” that government will try to stop her from building luxury town homes on her uplands, if she wants to do that.

“I believe in property rights, but I don’t believe in absolute property rights,” countered George Neugent, a commissioner from Monroe County, which is working on a water access and marine facilities plan.

Monroe is losing working waterfront to condominiums and private megayacht marinas. Neugent says he sees this in much the same light as he sees the loss of affordable housing in the Keys. Both are necessary, and “If we are not willing to do something to protect existing slips now, we’re going to continue to fall behind the curve just as we have with affordable housing,” he said.

Neugent said working waterfront advocates must make a case to lawmakers that preserving working waterfront makes economic sense.

Marty Laven, of The Dockominium Group, which brokers dockominium slips, warned that Florida has 18 to 24 months to stem the loss of working waterfront before it’s too late. He said he can’t keep up with the demand for dockominium slips. Marina consultant Mike Keifer agreed. “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t think that something ought to be done to prevent the train wreck that is about to happen in the state of Florida?” he asked.

Some means to a good end

Among the many possible solutions to Florida’s growing slip shortage:

• In November, an overwhelming 68 percent of Palm Beach County voters approved a $50 million bond issue to preserve public access to the water. The county can use the money to buy development rights of marinas and boatyards, and build new boat ramps and public parking. Buying development rights would prevent developers from privatizing waterfronts now available for public use. However, MIAF’s John Sprague points out that $50 million won’t go very far. Palm Beach’s popular Sailfish Marina was for sale recently for $32 million. The marina’s proposed sale to a condominium developer spurred the county to offer the referendum and try to preserve its waterfront.

• Enact a state law requiring counties to provide a certain number of boat ramps per 5,000 boats in their comprehensive zoning plans.

• Since private developers are abandoning the low end of boating, encourage local government to build dry-stack marinas for smaller boats in waterfront parks and on other publicly owned waterfront.

• Go to the voters for a bond issue, tax boat registrations or temporarily increase marine fuel taxes to fund these projects.

• Require government redevelopment agencies to preserve boat slips or boatyards in blighted areas slated for redevelopment or fund and license equivalent facilities within the same county to replace them. Don’t let redevelopment projects take marine facilities out of service.

• When a marina closes or is redeveloped for bigger boats and it results in a net loss of slips, bank those lost slips in a government-managed pool so they can be permitted somewhere else in the region. Don’t let slip inventories drop below existing levels.

• Allow government and developers to negotiate trade-off of development credits. Developers could be allowed to develop their uplands to a higher density if they offer public access to the water.

• Require marinas built over state submerged lands to dedicate at least one slip in 10 for public use when they convert to dockominiums.

• Give boatyards and marinas a property tax break the same way that agricultural land that remains in production gets a tax break.

• Build more rack storage off the water, and truck boats back and forth between the dry-stack barn and the launch dock.

• Ease up on permitting and eliminate slip density requirements in local manatee protection plans.

• Include a policy of no net loss of slips or boatyards in comprehensive plans and don’t exclude boatyards from residential zoning.

A $14.1 billion industry responsible for 180,000 jobs, boating is an important economic engine in Florida. “We have to take a look at the big picture,” Sprague said. “This is a statewide problem. Government is understanding now that there is a serious problem in the state of Florida, but there may not be a solution that is palatable to everyone.”