Abandoned vessels removed from Ortega River

Abandoned vessels removed from Ortega River
A barge holds the remnants of an abandoned boat retrieved from the Ortega River.

Homeowners along the Ortega River can start the year with a fresh slate – and a fresh vista.

City of Jacksonville employees had removed a houseboat, a derelict boat and a floating structure from the Ortega River by the second week of December and were moving forward with removing a fourth on the south side across from Stinson Park, said Jim Suber, waterways coordinator and dockmaster for the City of Jacksonville. The houseboat and structure were taken out of the water completely, and the other derelict vessel was towed to the Wayne B. Stevens boat ramp pending permanent removal. Because it was dragging anchor, it was a safety concern. The fourth vessel was under investigation.

Removing the boats and structures was costly and time consuming. Suber said the city pays anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000 to remove each vessel and must wait at least 21 days after notifying owners about pending removal. In the case of the boat dragging anchor, officials were in the second round of a 21-day wait after learning of a new owner. And, in the case of the floating structure, the city had to get a court order from a judge for its removal, he said. The city paid for removal with state funds drawn from vessel registrations.

“We are using Florida Boater Improvement Funds,” Suber explained. “A dollar of those registrations comes back to the county, and we use those funds for waterway improvements, whether it’s repairing a dock or getting derelict vessels out of the river. We can use it for anything that is boater related.” Suber said the city removed 17 derelict vessels in 2019.

The city may one day have fewer vessels to contend with, however. State legislation is in the works that could potentially prevent derelict vessels and floating structures from clogging the waterway in the future.

New legislation   

State Representative Wyman Duggan met with a group of homeowners along the Ortega River to hear their concerns about the channel being clogged with vessels, and that conversation spurred him to introduce a new bill, HB 417, at the end of October. If passed, the bill would declare the Ortega River an anchoring limitation area – meaning that vessels would be prohibited from anchoring in the waterway from a half hour after sunset until a half hour before sunrise. As of Dec. 10, the bill had gone to a state House subcommittee for review.

Along with hearing first-hand accounts from those homeowners, Duggan, who lives in Ortega Forest, has seen the issue grow more complex over the years. “I’ve been taking my kids to Stinson Park for a decade, and I’ve seen the boats accumulate and ultimately sink, and everybody who lives in the area knows of the problem,” he said.

A crane is shown removing a derelict houseboat and floating structure near Stinson Park in Ortega.
A crane is shown removing a derelict houseboat and floating structure near Stinson Park in Ortega.

After meeting with the homeowners, Duggan’s next step was to look at what state regulations were already in place before convening a meeting between members of the city waterways commission, State Representative Cord Byrd and some senior staff from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

During the meeting, Duggan discussed his plan to bring forth HB 417, which would amend state statute 327.4108, adding the Ortega River, as well as the Cedar River, to a short list of state waterways where mooring is limited in “densely populated urban areas, which have narrow state waterways, residential docking facilities, and significant recreational boating traffic.”

“The advantage I see of this statute is that it prohibits anchoring from a half hour after sunset until a half hour before sunrise, and you don’t have to go through the analysis of, ‘Is this a vessel or is this a floating structure?’

“My thinking is, this gives us an opportunity, at a minimum, to clear out the channel, clear out the problem boats, get back to a clean slate. And then as boats might accumulate in ones and twos, then it’s less of a burdensome task for our local law enforcement or the FWC to monitor and regulate vessels as they anchor,” said Duggan.

Exceptions to the anchoring limitations are made for several different situations, including inclement weather, certain public events, a vessel mechanical failure – in which the vessel may moor for three business days or until the repair is made, whichever comes first. The limitations do not apply to vessels owned or operated by a governmental entity for law enforcement, firefighting, military, or rescue purposes, construction or dredging vessels on an active job site, vessels actively engaged in commercial fishing, or vessels engaged in recreational fishing if the persons onboard are actively tending hook-and-line fishing gear or nets.

Duggan’s plan is not favored by all, particularly those with state-level boating interests. “The boating lobby, who are right now are in a posture of opposition to my bill, expressed a concern that legitimate boaters who are just trying to move down the coast can’t possibly know where it is and isn’t okay to anchor. I understand that, but what I told them is first of all that’s not the problem we are trying to solve there. This channel is becoming a blighted area. And so, in my opinion, it’s kind of like the broken window theory of crime – if you let an area become blighted, then worse results follow. We are not trying to interfere with the legitimate cruisers. We have a blight problem and for those cruisers that come in, there are several marinas right there so it’s not as if they have no options – they can utilize one of those marinas for however long they want to be there.

“What I have proposed, as a way for the legislation to move forward, there would be a two-year limit on including the Ortega River on this list of waterways. At the end of the two years, the prohibition would sunset, but that gives us two years to get on top of the problem,” said Duggan.

Beneficial outcomes         

One of the beneficial outcomes of the meeting was that the FWC enforcement staff and attorneys clarified that the City has its own independent jurisdiction and enforcement authority with respect to the state regulations, so that if the City’s marine patrol wanted to take enforcement action against any vessel, they legally can do so as long as it’s a sworn law enforcement officer, according to Duggan. 

 If passed, the bill will allow a law enforcement officer or agency to remove a vessel and impound it for up to 48 hours if its in violation. “If it’s a diligent boat owner, they are going to come get the boat, but if the boat has been abandoned, they won’t,” Duggan said. “But at least it will no longer be a navigation hazard and potentially sink and cost the state $20,000 to $30,000 to remove versus whatever it would cost to tow a vessel to an impound, which the FWC said would be around $2,000.”    

As a result of Duggan filing the legislation, the FWC did a survey on all the vessels between the Ortega Bridge and the Stinson drawbridge. The initial survey only assessed what was easily visible without boarding the boat. According to a spreadsheet sent to Duggan by the FWC, there are 23 vessels and one floating structure in the waterway. The assessment concluded that six vessels were in compliance and had no issues, while eight had issues that have been corrected by the owners, and six are still in violation. Violations included no navigation/anchor lights, expired registration and missing registration numbers. A more detailed assessment will follow, according to Duggan, which will include a marine sanitation analysis of each vessel.

“This is at the top of my priority list, and I am going to keep on top of the FWC until they give me a clear end game for all of these issues. What is the ultimate resolution for every vessel and every violation?  I’m going to stay on them until I at least get that, and I’m going to continue to push forward on my state legislation,” Duggan said. 

City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor was involved in crafting the plan and said she feels confident that it is the right thing to do. “I think it’s a great plan, we kind of worked on it together and came up with a solution of seeing if we could identify an area that’s for recreational use only,” she said. “We did a lot of research and talked to several people that were involved in determining whether that would really be the best approach. It was either that or trying to find a mooring field – the problem with the mooring field is that you have to have services that support them … like showers and toilets, and we don’t have any area like that in our district.”

Some concerns   

Suber said he has some concerns with the bill. “Number one is enforcement, because we don’t have an impoundment area to take a sailboat and neither does FWC. Number two is after 48 hours, what happens? It’s ambiguous. What this appears to be is we are putting out a campfire using a full battalion here. We’re causing a whole lot more damage to resolve ‘an’ issue. I admire Representative Duggan for wanting to solve the problem but, in the Ortega River, we do have some very nice boats and some very decent people that anchor their boats in that waterway. So, what we are doing is throwing everybody out because of a couple of issues, when what we need to do is have legislation to solve the problem – and the problem is not people anchoring in the waterway. We need to address the issue of derelict vessels more precisely instead of making the process of derelict vessels such a long, detailed process,” he said.

Suber explained how the process requires many steps and the ball is bounced back and forth between the City, FWC, and legislation that pays for derelict boat removal. Although a boat owner is given 21 days to resolve issues and violations, the reality is that it takes a lot longer.

“The bottom line is that this whole process is not 21 days – this process is more like six months. At the end of six months a lot of people are upset, and the boat has deteriorated even more and become more of a public hazard because of the time frame that it takes,” Suber said.

He added he is concerned about where the funding would come from for the impoundment area mentioned in the bill. “The state doesn’t give you a funding source for any of this to make an impoundment area. That’s a budgeted item, and right now, there is not an agency that has a budget for that item. The state doesn’t have a budgeted item for that; COJ at this time does not have a funding source or budget approved for that. There is a lot of discussion needed here, but it’s a start. I appreciate Representative Duggan for reaching out to get something in the works, because we’ve got a lot of issues,” he said.

At the City level, plans are in the works to deal with the floating structures that often dump into the river or are left unoccupied. The General Counsel is in the process of drafting up legislation that will prohibit floating structures in City waterways unless they are attached to a marina or private dock, and they must abide by all building codes and regulations of a residential property. The floating structures would have to be attached to electricity and plumbing, and it would have to abide by the building codes of the county, according to Suber. 

Although HB 417 may need some further tweaks, homeowners along the Ortega River are happy that someone is finally doing something about the problem. Lisa Grubba has long spoken out against problems in the waterway. She said irresponsible liveaboard boat owners are taking advantage of all Floridians when they flush their sewage into the river. She also objects to people disturbing nearby homeowners by running loud generators all night.

“This issue also isn’t new – it’s been going on for at least 20 years. Our area boaters and homeowners want to know why the Florida statute isn’t being enforced.  The law reads pretty clear, so is the problem the law or the enforcement policies?  That’s what we’ve asked our officials to help find out.  I know Councilwoman DeFoor and Representative Duggan have had many meetings with state officials on this, which we appreciate,” said Grubba.

By Jennifer Edwards
and Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

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