Florida Keys News
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Help removing derelict boats is in the works
Bills give power to cite, then remove, dangerous vessels

Bills that give marine law enforcement officers more control of the regulation of live-aboard and moored boats in nearshore waters are sailing through the state Legislature.

The bills are designed to combat the problem of people abandoning old boats and sticking local governments with the tab for their removal, which has become a serious problem in the Florida Keys.

State House Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, has sponsored H.B. 1363 that would grant Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and "certain" law enforcement officers the power "to relocate or remove vessels that constitute a navigation hazard or interfere with another vessel."

H.B. 1363 leaves open the possibility that sheriff's deputies and other local law enforcement officers could order the removal of abandon boats. And it exempts the FWC and other law enforcement agencies from liability for damages to a derelict vessel caused by the relocation or removal of such a vessel.

Derelict vessels are ones that are left, stored or abandoned and in a wrecked, junked or substantially dismantled condition. The officers can call for the vessels' removal if they are left docked, grounded or beached upon the property of another without the consent of the owner of the property.

The bill states "no person shall be moored or anchored, except in case of emergency, in a manner that shall unreasonably or unnecessarily constitute a navigational hazard or interfere with another vessel. Anchoring under bridges or adjacent to heavily traveled channels shall constitute an interference."

FWC or the local agencies can bill the vessel owner for the cost of relocation and removal, according to the bill.

Neither Van Zant nor his staff could be reached for comment about the bill on Friday.

H.B. 1363 has been passed unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. It is currently in the State Affairs committee. It has a companion bill in the state Senate, S.B. 1594, which is in the Criminal Justice Committee.

The bills still needed to be voted on by the full House and Senate.

Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent supports the bills, calling the derelict and abandon vessel "a statewide issued that has to be dealt with."

"This legislation could really help us," he said.

Neugent has pushed for programs that would remove vessels from mooring fields before the boats become derelict. During the past three years, the county has spent more than $500,000 to remove derelict vessels -- money the commissioner said could have been used for managed mooring fields, boat ramps and channel markers.

The county could be on the hook for the removal of an old tugboat named Tilly and a sailboat that are currently sunk roughly two miles off Key West. The cost to remove both vessels is estimated to be more than $500,000.

Monroe County is one of five local governments across the state that has partnered with the FWC on a pilot mooring field program. The program is designed to help local governments deal with live-aboard boaters on issues such as sewage pump out and the removal of boats that are about to become abandoned.

The program is scheduled to sunset in 2014, but there are two bills, H.B. 955 and S.B. 1126, that would extend the program by another three years.

On Tuesday, H.B. 955 was unanimously passed by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Committee. Earlier this month, the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee unanimously passed S.B. 1126.

The bills still needed to be voted on by the full House and Senate.

The Legislature, at the FWC's request, established the mooring field program in 2009, but most areas, including Monroe County, did not implement the program until 2012.

The program sets up a series of test rules designed to encourage boaters to pump out sewage and maintain their vessels so they won't deteriorate to a point where the FWC and local government agencies have to pay to have the vessels removed.

The test rules are in place for the mooring fields in Key West Harbor, Cow Key Channel off Stock Island, Boca Chica Basin between Stock Island and Boca Chica Key, Boot Key Harbor in Marathon and Sunset Cove in Key Largo.

The pilot rules include requiring pump-out of sewage and citing vessel owners if their boats become derelict.

At the same time, Monroe County government expanded its pump-out services and made them free to the public.

tohara@keysnews.com

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