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No right to limit liveaboards: boater

Stuart, Fla.’s Southpoint Anchorage is a showcase for city-managed moorings, an attractive facility that gives cruisers and liveaboards a menu of services — dinghy dock, showers, restrooms, ship’s store, cafe, sewerage pumpout, even an Internet portal and library — all run out of an old-Florida-style dockmaster’s office and boaters’ center.

Visitors are impressed, says Stuart harbormaster Buzz Billue.

“They love it,” he says. “They love what this city’s done.”

Don’t tell that to Thomas Gill — boater, advocate and outraged citizen. Gill says boaters have paid too high a price for the anchorage — actually, it’s a mooring field — and he is not just talking about the cost of taking a mooring there. That’s only $8 a day, $210 a month (plus tax). Gill says boaters have given up their right to anchor for free within the Stuart city limits, and that makes him angry.

“[The city] doesn’t own that water,” he says. “That water belongs to the American people. Those are federal waters. …The federal government owns our waterways. The waterways are given to the states in trust for the pleasure and use of the public.”

Gill says federal law guarantees the public the right to navigate on those waterways, and the right of navigation includes anchoring — free anchoring — for anyone operating a safe and seaworthy boat.

Gill, 49, a cruiser and part-time Stuart resident, owns two boats — a 52-foot ferrocement skipjack, the Lady Anne, which he is refurbishing; and a 33-foot Pearson Vanguard, Windrider, which he cruises with his wife along the East Coast and in the Bahamas.

Gill launched his crusade against Stuart’s anchoring ordinance in January, after Mayor Carl Krueger complained about Gill’s skipjack anchored in front of the city father’s vacant property on the St. Lucie River. Gill had to move Lady Anne under a city ordinance that prohibits boats from anchoring continuously in the city for more than 96 hours. Gill now has both his boats on city moorings at Southpoint, a longtime anchorage on the St. Lucie River inside the Roosevelt Bridge.

Gill’s fight with the city heated up last summer, when — on June 23 — Stuart adopted an ordinance banning liveaboards from anchoring anywhere in the city for any amount of time.

“If you want to live aboard, you tie up at the [Southpoint] mooring field,” says city attorney Carl Coffin. Otherwise you move your boat out of Stuart.

For purposes of the ordinance, a liveaboard “sleeps on the boat, eats there, his dog is there, that’s where he lives,” Coffin says. “He cannot be anchored in the city of Stuart under any circumstances.”

Cruisers visiting Stuart — those exercising their rights of navigation — are considered non-liveaboard vessels and can anchor up to 96 hours in the city, unless an emergency such as bad weather prevents them from moving on. After 96 hours, a boat becomes a liveaboard vessel and must move to a mooring or leave the city within 10 days. The city decides when a cruiser makes the transition from non-liveaboard to a liveaboard, Coffin says.

Gill argues that the city has no right to decide how long a boat in navigation can remain at anchor — that is the decision of the vessel’s master. “You can’t put [an arbitrary] time limit on the right of navigation,” Gill says. “Who are these cities to say your right of navigation is 96 hours?” he asks. He says only the state has the right to define navigation, and Florida has said precious little on the subject.

Florida statutes say local government can regulate and even prohibit liveaboard vessels — defined as any vessel used solely as a residence — as well as non-liveaboard vessels not exercising rights of navigation. In other words, boats that clearly are not going anywhere. The Florida attorney general issued a 1985 opinion that a vessel is a liveaboard if it can be proven that its skipper intends to use it as a legal residence. However, local government cannot regulate anchorage of non-liveaboard vessels engaged in the exercise of rights of navigation. All of this leaves lots of room for interpretation.

Local anchorage and liveaboard ordinances have been in and out of litigation in Florida for over a decade, without any clear resolution.

Coffin says Stuart’s ban on most anchoring in favor of a managed mooring field was necessary to better oversee liveaboards and cruisers so they don’t dump garbage and waste in the water, and to keep track of owners of derelict boats so the city can remove unsafe, unsightly and unseaworthy boats. “[A managed mooring field] is organized, it’s safe, it’s appreciated by most people,” Coffin says.

Gill believes the Southpoint moorings are mainly a “cash cow” for the city and a sop to waterfront owners who don’t like boats cluttering their view of the water. “You’re living on the water, and boats were there first — not your rich, expensive home,” he says to homeowners.

Gill believes he can beat the Stuart ordinance in court. He wants to challenge municipal and county anchorage ordinances all over the state, one by one. “This is like a cancer,” he says. “It’s going to grow and grow. Boating is going to be prohibitively expensive to a lot of people unless we can go to court and say enough’s enough.”

He wants to organize a national movement to exchange information and pool resources for a defense fund to challenge anchorage ordinances (he may be contacted at Gill says anchor-outs are on the defensive in Boot Key in the Florida Keys, at Dinner Key in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, and in Naples and Fort Myers. His Boaters for Waterway Rights — Gill claims 700 members already — will try to keep the waterway free and challenge “these unacceptable laws” in court, he says. He also wants to start a Web site where boaters can share information about local liveaboard laws and tell others of their experiences of police shooing them out of anchorages.

Gill’s goal is federal protection for people who live on their boats.

“We have to go to the federal government and say, ‘We have 1-1/2 million people who live on boats, and they are being harassed. They need [federal] protection,’” Gill says.

Gill soon may have an opportunity to test the legal waters. Vincent Sibilla, a longtime anchor-out at Southpoint on his 22-foot sailboat, has been arrested three times since Dec. 12 for anchoring his boat in violation of the liveaboard ban. A vocal opponent of the liveaboard ordinance, Sibilla had been trying to get ticketed since last summer so he could challenge it. Gill says whether or not Sibilla’s ticket is a good test case depends on exactly where he was anchored. The state has given Stuart management authority over state-owned bottom inside the mooring field, and that authority includes regulating liveaboards. Gill believes the ticket can be successfully challenged if Sibilla was anchored over state-owned bottom outside the managed mooring field because the state has no specific prohibition against anchoring or living aboard a boat, and it only gives cities general authority to restrict anchoring when boats are used solely as a residence. Most liveaboards also use their boats to cruise.

At Southpoint, harbormaster Billue says the 69 moorings there were filled at 95 to 100 percent capacity most of last year. The facility has been so successful the city is planning a $2.5 million expansion, including 17 more moorings, an 80-slip marina and restaurant.

He says Stuart has spent $5 million over five years on the anchorage, an adjacent park, a scenic riverwalk between the anchorage and downtown, and other nearby renewal projects. It’s all part of a long-term plan to upgrade the city downtown and waterfront.

“We want to make this a marine-

oriented community on this side of the bridge — a village, if at all possible,” he says.

Free anchorage is not part of the plan.

The Florida Inland Navigation District, which oversees navigability of Florida’s east coast Intracoastal Waterway, is encouraging cities like Stuart to put in managed mooring fields in place of free laissez-faire anchoring. It sees managed moorings as the wave of the future.

“In my experience of 20-years-plus working on the waterways of Florida, things are changing out there,” says FIND executive director David Roach. “It’s not the Wild West on the waterways like it used to be. There are a number of users. We need to clean up our act. We need to make sure things are safer and cleaner out there so that boating is not further restricted.”

Gill thinks the managed moorings and anchorage bans are themselves an unacceptable erosion of boaters’ rights to navigate and enjoy the water. “This is wrong,” he says.