The Intracoastal Waterway is like a highway for boats, with cruisers passing through from the north on their way to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Just outside of the channel, which is federally run, are safe, protected spots where boats can drop anchor for a night — or many nights.
For years, boaters going through Florida were frustrated by a patchwork of laws, as each city up and down along the ICW instituted its own rules about where boats could drop anchor for the night. In 2009, the law changed so that only the state could regulate these areas. Homeowners along the riverbanks grew frustrated at the inability to control what was happening out their back door. They claim boaters can be rude and crude.
This year, bills are moving through the state legislature that will outlaw overnight anchoring in a specific area of the Middle River — south of Sunrise Boulevard near the Galleria Mall — and in Sunset Lake and certain spots along the Venetian Causeway in Miami Beach.
Cruisers, however, balk at the negative descriptions and say that rich people have no right to control the water and infringe upon rights that boaters have enjoyed for millenia. Though the current bill outlaws anchoring in just small, specific sections of the waterway, boaters fear it will open the door to more restrictions around the state.
State Rep. George Moraitis, Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, who introduced the House version of the bill, says that boats stop in the Middle River, sometimes for months, treating it "more like a campground."
This "anchoring makes it difficult for kids to waterski," he says. He described accidents where kids maneuvered to avoid anchored boats and then slammed into walls.
He also said that he's fielded "a lot of complaints" and "voluminous emails" from residents complaining about the anchored boats. He also felt there were "sewage issues and sanitation issues" with boats that stayed at anchor long-term. He suggested boaters could dock instead at he city's marina, on mooring balls, or in a safe section of the river called Lake Sylvia three miles south. "It's about having a balance."
A homeowner who gave his name only as Kevin said, "Look I understand that people want to have the right to anchor, but there are two places in Fort Lauderdale that you can waterski, and the Middle River is one of them. When a lot of boats are anchored there in one of the few ares that you can do watersports, that area becomes very congested and very dangerous. These boats aren't just coming for a day or two and leaving. They stay for weeks or months at a time."
He described seeing boaters naked on their boats and urinating into the water. "I question whether or not they can really be emptying their sewage appropriately. Would you let someone park a mobile home in the street for months at time?" He went on: "I have had to call police on numerous occasions. I have no idea if these are people with records — if these are people with sexual crimes and records that are living behind your house."
Seantor Maria Sachs said boaters will still be able to anchor in the daytime. But boaters "can't do it to the point that it affects the private property rights of those who live in those specific areas. She noted that the "there are certain exemptions, like if the boat has mechanical problems or there's a regatta or parade."
The legislature's analysis of the bill cites homeowners' "riparian rights" — "rights that are those incident to land bordering upon navigable waters. Under Florida law, riparian rights specifically include the right to an unobstructed view and the right of ingress to and egress from the water."
Wally Moran, a sailor and author, is rallying boaters to fight via his blog, Live Bloggin the ICW. He is outraged that the homeowners are mischaracterizing the people who cruise through. "These guys have stood in public, and spoken to police and they have lied about things that cruisers supposedly do." Generally speaking, he says, cruisers are middle or upper class folks who have spent many thousands of dollars on their boats and are enjoying their retirement. Fort Lauderdale and Miami are pit stops where the spend money, refuel, have boats repaired, and provision.
"In a winter, I'll spend eight to ten thousand dollars on groceries, drinks, museums, parts for the boat , diesel fuel," said. Driving boats away will hurt small businesses who depend on cruisiers for income. "My understanding is from 8 to 10,000 boats come thru Florida in the course of a season."
Boaters' waste is pumped out properly at marinas, he says. If indeed homeowners see derelict boats or illegal dumping, "there are laws to deal with that," he says. And as for suggestions that boaters just go to marinas, frequently, he says, in many cases, "All the marinas are full. There are hundreds of people on boats and they've got no place to go." One day this week, he said, there were 55 boats anchored out at just one spot in the Keys as boats waited for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas.
Cramming people into fewer and fewer safe anchoring spots, he says, could "actually endanger people. Docks are full. There's no place you can even get dockage. You cant get a mooring ball either."
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But the legislation — called "Anchoring Limitation Areas" — known in the House as HB1051 and in the Senate as SB1260 — has moved through committees and is scheduled to be voted on today in the House, and in the Senate tomorrow.
Boating organization Boat U.S. said in a statement:
“For a number of years, BoatU.S., our 115,000 members in the Sunshine State, and other user groups have worked to stop local governments from enacting a patchwork of laws and ordinances that restrict the anchoring of non-liveaboard vessels outside permitted mooring fields,” said BoatUS President Margaret Bonds Podlich. “We want to ensure that active, responsible, cruising boaters continue to have an array of options, including anchoring out, using moorings, and tying up at docks. We don’t want to go back in time to having different and confusing local laws that make responsible cruisers unwelcome.”
Moran said that if the law passes, boaters will likely band together to sue.