Lawmakers May Ban Anchoring of Boats in Intracoastal Waterway

Yachts anchored in Fort Lauderdale’s Middle River basin, which would be illegal if proposed legislation passes.EXPAND
Yachts anchored in Fort Lauderdale’s Middle River basin, which would be illegal if proposed legislation passes.
Branon Edwards

Update 5 p.m. : The measure has reportedly passed the House subcommittee. 

Original story, 10 a.m.: 
A battle is heating up between rich owners of waterfront property and boaters who, instead of docking, use anchors to keep their boats cheaply (free!) in the Intracoastal Waterway. The rich have argued that these anchored boats ruin their view — especially vessels that have been abandoned and become decrepit. Many boaters, however, contend that they are responsible and have rights to use the waterway. 

As they say, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In this case, the squeaky wheel appears to be wealthy property owners along Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, and the grease is a nasty bit of proposed legislation known in the House as HB1051 and in the Senate as SB1260. Both bills in Tallahassee aim to make it illegal to anchor overnight in parts of the Intracoastal Waterway despite the waterway having been used for this purpose since its inception.

It seems that some Florida homeowners believe they have rights that extend past their property lines. They may not own the bay bottom, riparian rights, or even the air rights, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel they’re entitled to an unobstructed view or privacy that extends beyond their legal ownership.

One Miami Beach homeowner who has become well-known in this debate is Fredric Karlton, who went so far as to anchor dozens of small boats around his property to keep boaters away and “protect his privacy.” One would think that the resulting eyesore of his bird-feces-encrusted dinghies without proper anchor lighting would have been worse than a few sailboats, but still, the violation went ignored by local law enforcement for quite some time.

While there are truly legitimate concerns about derelict vessels, the occasional disrespectful yahoo, and the irresponsible dumping of sewage and trash by a few offenders, derelict boats and scofflaw boat owners are not the only ones who will be affected by this legislation.

In speaking with Steven Kaufmann of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA), a group of active and concerned boating enthusiasts, it is apparent that the problem is actually more complex than just a few boats anchoring as they transit the Intracoastal. Kaufmann says, “One of the issues is that derelict boats get lumped in with actual cruisers. There is a huge difference between a derelict boat with an illegal permanent mooring and a cruiser who is at anchor temporarily on his way to the Caribbean.”

Cruisers are folks who live a good deal of their time traveling on their boats – think mom and pop driving cross country in their Winnebago for months or years at a time. By the nature of cruising (just like RV’ing), boat owners have to maintain their vessels in good working order as a matter of safety and necessity; they buy fuel, food, boat parts, supplies, and generally spend money along the way in the various places they visit. They are, by and large, law-abiding citizens who simply are enjoying life by traveling on their boats.

As with any group, there are also folks who break down, run out of money, or simply feel that they’re above the law. These boaters often allow their boats to intentionally or unintentionally become “derelicts.” Florida Statue §823.11 defines a derelict vessel as one “that is left, stored, or abandoned in a wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition upon any public waters; at a port without the consent of the agency having jurisdiction thereof, or that is docked, grounded, or beached upon the property of another without the consent of the owner of the property.”

According to the FWC website, “Florida is plagued with many abandoned vessels. These vessels become derelict vessels quickly and then subject the boating public to safety issues, become locations for illegal activity, illegal housing, opportunities for theft and vandalism and ultimately cost the taxpayers to be removed by Local, County or State authorities.” 

Kaufmann continued that, as a veteran and someone familiar with law enforcement, he understands that part of complexity of the issue is the enforcement itself. How do FWC, local police, and the Coast Guard determine which boats are transient and which are derelict? How long can a boat be unattended and not reasonably be derelict? What set of criteria is used? How far from someone’s property line should someone be anchored? Where do those property lines and property rights actually terminate? How long can a boat be permitted to stay at anchor? Is the boat actually at anchor, or is it on an illegal mooring?

Without clear delineations about what is legal and what is not, law enforcement is difficult if not impossible. Of course, this is complicated by budget constraints of the various agencies and resources available to officers within a somewhat blurred jurisdiction anyway.

Cruisers frequently are forced to stay at anchorage far longer than they had originally intended simply because the weather or other extenuating circumstance don’t permit them to continue their trips as quickly as even they would like. Naturally, cruisers tend to congregate in protected anchorages, both for weather protection and for the social aspect of cruising.

Derelicts likewise congregate in areas of protected anchorage, but in contrast, they have very little intention of moving anytime soon, if ever. Many of these derelict boats have been sitting for years, slowly deteriorating, and becoming progressively more dangerous to navigation and the simple enjoyment of the waterway. Some are owned by folks who simply cannot afford to store them elsewhere, sell them, or have them disposed of properly once they’ve reached the end of their reasonable use.

Kaufmann and the SSCA have expended a significant amount of time and money to help educate the public, the property owners, and, of course, legislators in Tallahassee. “We try to be good stewards of the communities and the water,” he says. Their lobbying efforts include a recent news release that encourages boaters to make their voices heard by contacting their representatives. They also have a crowdfunding campaign dedicated to SSCA legislative efforts. According to Kaufmann, this money pays only for the expenses of SSCA’s lobbying efforts. SSCA as a whole is an active community that does a fair amount of outreach, including helping cruisers in distress from time to time.

In its official statement, it urges, “Your right to anchor in five Florida anchorages will be gone if HB1051 Recreational Boating Zones and its companion SB1260 pass. All overnight anchoring would be prohibited in Middle River in Broward County; Sunset Lake and the areas between Rivo Alto Island and Di Lido Island, San Marino Island and San Marco Island, San Marco Island and Biscayne Island all in Miami-Dade County; and Crab Island in Choctawhatchee Bay. More prohibitions will come if this law passes.

"SSCA, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and BoatUS, with support from the Marine Trawler Owner’s Association and the American Great Loop Cruisers Association are opposing these bills as written. HB1051 is scheduled to be heard in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday January 26 at Noon. We need your help now.”

These specific areas slated for prohibition have been anchoring areas for decades. Property owners in these areas were well aware of their use as anchorages before they purchased these properties. It would seem ludicrous that their simply changing their minds about seeing boats in the public waterway in proximity of their views could result in such destructive laws.

Wally Moran, cruiser and author of a number of waterway guides including a new guide on cruising to Cuba, reached out to fellow cruisers, saying, “We cruisers are in trouble, big trouble this time. If this bill is allowed to pass, you can write off anchoring overnight in the entire state of Florida. That's right, the entire state.” As alarmist as this may seem, Moran is likely right. In an effort to appease a few vocal property owners, the Legislature is putting forth sweeping change that will have massive impact both in the near and long terms. Other Florida municipalities are likely to ask for amendments to block anchoring in their communities as well.

Kaufmann insisted, “This legislation will take away anchoring opportunities for legitimate cruisers who are simply passing through” and who are spending big money in Florida in the process. Florida benefits for untold millions in tourism dollars generated by cruisers each year.

In their effort to simplify the law enforcement process for derelict boats, HB1051 and SB1260 will essentially drive away legitimate cruisers from our state. A reasonable, thinking person would expect there to be some other way to address the derelict vessel problem without initiating the law of unintended consequences. In this case, unintended consequences could be a massive loss of tourism dollars, a rash of business closings in the marine services industries, including heavy job losses, and perhaps even the loss of South Florida’s reputation as a true yachting destination.

Here is a link to a list of members of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee:

Branon Edwards is a licensed Florida real estate broker who also lives in a marina located on Middle River in Fort Lauderdale – swimming distance to one of the proposed anti-anchoring areas. 

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