Long awaited regulations arrive for waterways

Long awaited regulations arrive for waterways
The cockpit aft of a derelict vessels east of the SR 17 bridge. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Limitations on anchoring, maps of abandoned hazards part of ongoing effort to increase safety

The City of Jacksonville is on the cusp of limiting long-term anchoring in the city’s waterways, and the highly-trafficked Ortega River in particular, to 45 days.

It didn’t take an act of Congress, just the Florida Legislature, and cooperation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that controls the state’s waterways, plus a local push from Jacksonville City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor and the city’s Waterways Commission.

Derelict vessels and the troubles they bring to the Ortega River and the larger St. Johns River are not new but they’ve become more common in recent years, residents say.

They damage other boats and docks in storms, serve as low rent housing and appear as eyesores against otherwise scenic vistas. But the river blight has united the many parties in cooperation of a common goal: improving traffic conditions for boaters, many of whom live and/or play on the river.

Councilwoman DeFoor put it like this for landlubbers; imagine an old car in disrepair. It may still run but it’s not your weekend piddle project. It’s just parked in front of your house. For months on end. And you can’t do anything to move it.

That will soon change for derelict boats, however.

Two new city ordinances moving toward approval should improve traffic on the river. One measure will remove a nuisance vessel from the Ortega River via a state grant program funded from a portion of boater registration fees. The cost is $30,000.

Another ordinance crafted by Councilwoman DeFoor will prohibit vessels from serving as long-term housing by capping anchoring periods in the high traffic parts of the St. Johns River, like the Ortega River, to 45 days.

“Neighbors who live along the Ortega River brought this issue to my attention when I was running for office,” explained Councilwoman DeFoor by email. “I’ve been a boater my whole life and I understand the joy and responsibilities of owning a boat. Lisa Grubba, Mike Barker, and other neighbors shared their concerns with me and because the waterways are controlled by the state we brought Representative Wyman Duggan in on the conversations.

“Derelict boats have a huge negative impact on the waterways and adjacent upland properties. We found that boats have been abandoned by people who live in Texas and Connecticut.  Imagine someone dumping a car in your front yard, and it stays there for months – this is the exact situation on our river. These abandoned boats are hazards, toxic for the environment, and come at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers to haul off from the river bottom when they sink.”

Mr. Barker serves on the city’s Waterways Commission, which makes recommendations to the city council regarding state grants to fund those removals.

A $30,000 reimbursement grant recommended for approval by the commission, now under consideration by the city council and introduced by Councilman Sam Newby in mid-January, will reimburse the city for removal of two boats. The ordinance identified a 27-foot vessel located east of the Ortega Bridge and west of the 17/Roosevelt Boulevard bridge and a 26-foot sailboat from the intercoastal waterway near the 600 block of Atlantic Boulevard.

They’re bound for the Trail Ridge Landfill between now and April 29, 2022, the ordinance states.

Mr. Barker said repair costs for boats that strike submerged derelect vessels can be just as expensive.

A recent collision between a sunken derelict boat and a Huckins yacht reportedly owned by The Haskell Companies was said to have caused $10,000 in damage, Mr. Barker said.

That’s why FWC has a searchable online map tool showing the locations and coordinates of derelicts vessels so boaters can avoid them.

Two exist in or near the Ortega River now, the map shows. There’s the 27-footer slated for removal and a partially submerged 26-footer on a damaged dock on the Cedar River.

Neither boat poses a danger to other boats but both are derelict vessels, according to FWC’s map at https://app.myfwc.com/LE/ArrestNet/DerelictVessel/VesselMap.aspx. Only one of the dozen or so derelict boats in Northeast Florida has been declared a navigation hazard by FWC  and it’s located in the intercoastal waterway near Jacksonville Beach.

Councilwoman DeFoor said the city council also unanimously approved a resolution stating the city’s intent to file legislation with FWC regarding the 45-day anchoring limitation within certain city waterways.

“Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had 30 days to review and respond. That time has passed. We are now in the final stages of the second step and are editing the Anchoring Limitation Area legislation in order to codify regulations regarding the limited anchoring zone,” she said.

One of the latest derelict vessels in the area appears to be anchored, listed [leaning to one side] and now aground and silted in, just outside of the mouth of Big Fishweir Creek. It is one of the latest hazards in the St. Johns River, the vessel sits just off the bulkheads of nearby residents along Richmond Street’s waterfront in Avondale.
One of the latest derelict vessels in the area appears to be anchored, listed [leaning to one side] and now aground and silted in, just outside of the mouth of Big Fishweir Creek. It is one of the latest hazards in the St. Johns River, the vessel sits just off the bulkheads of nearby residents along Richmond Street’s waterfront in Avondale.

One of the latest tweaks addressed the rights of upland property owners, who would be exempt from the 45-day limitation.

“When passed, this legislation will promote the public access to the waters of the state; enhance navigational safety; protect maritime infrastructure; protect the marine environment and deter improperly stored, abandoned, or derelict vessels,” she said. “It will keep our river safe for our friends, children and neighbors to enjoy.”

That’s welcomed news for Mr. Barker, who’s been boating for 50-plus years and moved to a home on the Ortega River some 25 years ago. He began serving on the waterways commission more than a year now at the invitation of Councilwoman DeFoor.

“I grew up sailing on the Ortega River since I was 9 years old,” said Mr. Barker in mid-January. “I’ve run up and down the St. Johns [River] and crossed the Atlantic [Ocean] twice in a trawler. I’ve been on the water my whole life and logged hundreds of hours scuba diving.”

The real estate investor said there’s an online market for cheap, even free, boats in poor condition. Once acquired, they’re leased as homes on the water. He said one occupant of a derelict vessel recently died from a drug overdose.

“It’s just ridiculous,” summed up Mr. Barker.

He recalled a male that lived on a sailboat near his home for six years and never moved it. He said the boat was “falling apart” some 90-feet from his dock.

He said those living on boats in various stages of disrepair, some disposing of human waste and garbage directly into the river, are often verbally abusive to neighbors, which has led to frequent conflicts requiring law enforcement to be summoned.

“It’s gotten to a point where that can’t happen anymore,” said Mr. Barker. “I appreciate the hard work of Randy DeFoor and [Florida House Representative] Wyman Duggan to get these people to move along. There’s a difference between storing a boat and navigating. We need legislation to make that delineation.”

During the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature, Rep. Duggan successfully passed a measure giving power to counties to impose anchoring restrictions in urban areas with narrow waterways and significant boating traffic, which Ms. DeFoor’s legislation aims to do. State law previously prohibited such action by local rather than the state government.

“The legislation that I sponsored gives counties an additional, voluntary tool they can use to ensure that vessels aren’t abandoned in designated navigable waterways,” said Rep. Duggan by email. “My understanding is that Duval will be the first county to adopt the necessary local ordinance to implement the legislation, but that other counties are waiting to use our ordinance as model legislation.”

“Basically, the state has given counties back the opportunity to regulate their waterways,” explained Mr. Barker. “… If we have someone in a well-maintained and insured vessel who wants to anchor and shop and eat and then leave in two weeks, no problem. I’ve done that. I’ve done that all over the world.”

He estimates about three times per year boats sink into the river, costing between $10,000 and $30,000 to remove.

“The local ordinance will give people who are really navigating; they can drop anchor for 45 days but then you have to move on. We’ve been working on this for over a decade. If you’re a real engaged cruiser in a decent boat that’s insured, maintained and safe, visiting different places, not trying to claim a section of the river for yourself … I’m great with those guys. They’re coming in and bringing something to the community. Cruisers, real engaged cruisers, are just great people. But people who dump their boats for the season or stake a claim and scream at people are not.”

He said conflicts have become more frequent in the last two or three years with many people arriving from outside Florida and heading to parts of the river with a shortage of boat slips already.

Under the new ordinance, boaters who violate the 45-day anchoring limitation would be fined. But the fines need to be high enough that derelict boat owners, who leave vessels anchored in the river for the winter, will have a financial incentive to lease marina space instead.

“The cost of compliance needs to be lower than the cost of non-compliance,” said Mr. Barker.

“They [law enforcement] have so many things they have to enforce because you have to regulate to the lowest common denominator. Two percent of the people who could care less about anybody else … We have to regulate against them. Ninety-eight percent of boaters don’t want to have anything to do with these people,” he said.

“We can’t let the Ortega River fill up like a junkyard,” added Mr. Barker.

By Joel Addington
Resident Community News

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