Save our Florida anchoring rights

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Please lend your voice to help save our homes, businesses, culture and way of life by signing this petition against the severe anchoring limitation provision included in Florida House Bill 639! The section we are opposed to reads as follows:

"(2)(a) Monroe County is designated as an anchoring limitation area within which a vessel may only be anchored in the same location for a maximum of 90 days. The commission shall adopt rules to implement this subsection.

(b) This subsection does not apply to an approved and permitted mooring field. "

 

We are fighting to protect our long-standing right to secure anchoring of vessels against house bill 639 which has recently been subjected to a last-minute subtle, yet substantial, modification to include new sweeping legislation that will force as many as a thousand or more long-term anchored vessels in the Florida Keys to change their anchoring location every 90 days, with internal documents indicating that they will need to move at least 5 miles; much more if no suitable anchoring or facilities can be found.

Whether it's because of the astronomical rental costs due to housing shortages or simply for a love of the lifestyle, many boaters have chosen to make their full-time residence onboard their vessels anchored away from land. For a long-term anchoring liveaboard boaters, as well as for general or commercial vessel storage, a secure anchor is paramount to your physical safety as well as the safety of the vessel, those around you and the environment in which you are. Once a reliable anchoring position has been established, often through a considerable investment of time, sweat and stress, there is no reason why a boater would want to pull anchor and repeat the process, unless it was necessary. The new proposed regulations would force every boat anchoring for more than 90 days to abandon these secure anchoring positions, expend considerable unnecessary resources and relocate, despite the ever-present associated risks of failure resulting from freshly-set anchors, risks that long-term boaters are very familiar with and take caution to avoid. Exacerbating the situation, internal documents indicate that the final rules will require the boater to travel a minimum of 5 miles from the previous anchoring location. In a geographic area with only a handful of suitable anchoring locations within a span of 125 miles, this may mean relocating to another city entirely, every 90 days.

While in recent years the State of Florida has implemented multiple permanently-installed mooring field sites throughout the state as alternatives for long-term anchoring vessel, they are not an option for many boaters for many reasons including vacancy, vessel limitations, storm-strength limitations, usage restrictions, weather protection and financial expense to name a few. While the proposed anchoring limitation regulation discludes public mooring fields, the implication that a long-term anchored boater can simply move to a mooring field is flawed in that the Key West field, for example, is already filled to capacity. There are also footage, weight, usage and vessel-type limitations which prevent many vessels from being able to utilize the service at all. However, even if you are able to gain access to a mooring you must still be concerned about the integrity of the supplied equipment, on your mooring as well as those around you, as there have been numerous cases of failure in the past year alone, resulting in vessel collisions, property damage and salvaging costs.

The only other on-the-water alternative to a permanently-installed mooring is a removable anchoring system, who's security and reliability inherently takes time to prove. Certain anchorages have worse holding than others, such as Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, FL, who's loose silt bottom is notoriously difficult to anchor in, and establishing a secure anchoring position there can take many attempts over several weeks. Once it has been securely established, the most responsible course of action for a vessel operator is to remain in that location until they are prepared to move on. Disturbing a secured anchor without needing to creates an unnecessary risk to the vessel, passengers and other boaters, such as in cases of strong weather developing before a new anchoring position can be reliably established. Requiring long-term anchoring vessels to reset their systems every 90 days would invariably lead to an increase in damage through collisions with unsecured vessels loose from their recently-set and unproven anchor holdings.

This new proposed legislation is supported by officials as a means of inherently requiring boaters' compliance with derelict vessel laws, in which a vessel must be kept in operational condition, however, there are already robust laws on the books that promote the same, and an even greater level of scrutiny, by providing law enforcement officers with the authority to subject a vessel to an in-motion test to prove that it has an "effective means of propulsion"; a test that may be demanded as frequently as every 30 days. This regulation was adopted in 2019 in order to positively identify whether or not a vessel is in derelict condition or "at-risk" of becoming derelict. With a tool such as this, there is no need for additional laws meant to coerce boat owners into compliance with regard to the operational condition of their vessel.

So if such a regulation is already being successfully implemented in the field to ensure derelict vessel compliance, then why would there be support for new legislation requiring boaters to relocate such a great distance so frequently? The local Key West newspaper "The Blue Paper" did some research and wrote the following article on the matter:

"If Florida’s House of Representatives Tyler Sirois has it his way, the Florida legislature will soon prohibit boat owners from remaining anchored in the same location for more than 90 days anywhere in the Florida Keys.

Although it’s not in the text of the bill, internal documents obtained by The Blue Paper show FWC is expected to enforce a five-mile minimum distance for the boat owner to drop anchor again.

The 90-day limit in House Bill 639 is making its way through subcommittees with the support of Monroe County government.

“This will affect hundreds of people that live and work in our community,” says Stan Loveday, a dockmaster at the City’s Key West Bight Marina.

The last Keys-wide survey of anchored boats was made in 2002. It showed there were already 870 anchored boats in the Keys. Today Key West Bight alone sells an average 200 dinghy dock passes each month.

Whether anchoring has been a way to avoid the exorbitant costs of dockage in the Keys or whether the anchored boat is being used as a home on the ocean, local boaters are waking up to a reality where they might soon find themselves living on an island where only tourists and the very wealthy can afford and enjoy owning a boat.

“I don’t think those people in Tallahassee realize how much trouble and danger they’re going to put us through,” says Satya Wildwood. As a single mom Satya raised her son on a boat anchored in Key West harbor.

“Anchoring when you’re cruising is not the same thing as when you have to go to work every morning,” she said. “When you’re at work, you need to be sure your boat and your family are going to be one hundred percent safe, no matter what storm passes by. So, you can’t just throw down one anchor. You have to set at least three, set them in different directions and tie them to a swivel. It takes hours. And they are never completely safe until they have been driven deep. The longer they’ve been down there, the better,” she said.

And there is the question of where to go. “My sailboat has a 6-foot draft. I can’t enter into the Cow Key Channel or Boca Chica anchorage areas. I would have to go 45 miles to Marathon. I’m a waitress at Blue Heaven. I would have to find another job in Marathon and then another one 90 days later when I’ll be forced to move again. How is this going to work?”

“The dumbest idea I’ve ever heard”
A professional marine salvor who asked not to be identified by name stated: “The dynamics of asking people to move every three months may be good, but there’s nowhere for people to go. I’m all in favor of people being able to pick up their anchors but since there’s no infrastructure for them anywhere besides Key West harbor – with 99% of people working in Key West – how would you expect them to move? Not only would it be a hardship but what good does it do to disturb a properly installed safe anchoring system? There are no shoreside facilities in Boca Chica or Cow Key Channel. It’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

The official explanation
Major Robert Rowe, FWC’s Boating and Waterways Section Leader, explained the official intent of the anchoring limitation: The time limit on anchoring will force boaters to have boats in working order and therefore there will be less derelict vessels.

The problem with that explanation is that there is already a law, the “at risk vessel statute,” requiring boat owners to pass a test proving they can actually navigate one quarter of a mile and back in ten minutes.*

As recently as February 20, 2020 Major Rowe himself was briefing FWC’s board of commissioners about how efficient FWC officers have become at enforcing the At-Risk vessel statute: “We’ve had 564 citations issued over the course of 2019. That’s more than double from the previous year. We’re gaining steam.”

So what is really going on?
House Representative Sirois represents District 51, which includes Cape Canaveral. Why is a representative from Cape Canaveral so concerned about restricting anchoring in the Florida Keys?

The Blue Paper asked to see all emails and notes about HB 639 and companion Senate Bill 1086 – from FWC, the state legislature, and Monroe County.

This is what we found:

In November of 2020 a group of public officials went for a boat ride on an FWC patrol boat. Among them were FWC Captain David Dipre, FWC Major Robert Rowe and Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey.

They took a tour of the anchorages in the areas of Boca Chica Bay and Wisteria island. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss an anchoring time limit. Representative Sirois was not aboard the boat but local hotel owner and FWC Commissioner Robert Spottswood was.

In a report about the conversations it quickly appears that Spottswood is the one behind the anchoring restriction. In other Monroe County documents the anchoring limitation bill is referred to by staff as the “Spottswood Bill.”

Robert Spottswood is one of the largest waterfront property owners in the Lower Keys. He owns the Marriott Beachside on North Roosevelt Blvd. He also owns an 80+ room hotel development project on Stock Island on the edge of Boca Chica Bay.

In front of Spottswood’s Marriott Beachside a handful of liveaboard boats bob around on the water taunting, with their bohemian lifestyle, tourists who pay between $536 and $1,878 per night to stay in one of Mr. Spottswood 215 hotel units.

Last year Spottswood secretly fenced up “dinghy beach” – the small public beach just next to his hotel, that liveaboards had used for decades to go to shore. Tipped off by boaters, The Blue Paper asked to see the building permit for the fence and the property title for the beach. There were none. Spottswood had simply grabbed the public beach. Key West Code Compliance currently has an open case against him.

Spottswood also owns Stock Island Yacht Club & Marina on the edge of Boca Chica Bay. The anchorage in Boca Chica Bay has been providing low-income affordable housing for Stock Island residents for decades. But Spottswood has a grandiose plan to build an over 80-room luxury hotel at the Yacht Club.

Boca Chica boaters have complained to The Blue Paper that “Spottswood’s FWC” has been harassing them. FWC officers search boats when no one is on board and use swat team methods to storm boats at gunpoint over unpaid $90 citations. Boca Chica anchorage liveaboard boater David Espinosa recently spent nearly 10 months in jail without trial for little more than having an engine that was allegedly too small for his boat and storing a dinghy on shore.

In the anchorage near Cow Key Channel Adam Bounds grew tired of the repeated searches. He planted a huge American flag on his houseboat and painted “4th Amendment” in 3-foot letters on the side of the cabin. On October 15, 2019 he called FWC’s headquarters in Tallahassee begging for protection against local officers. Within hours FWC officers had forced themselves inside Bounds’ boat and shot him three times. In the police report officers claim Bounds had doused himself in gasoline and yelled, “Get the fuck off my boat! I’ll blow us all up!” Interestingly, the audio recording of the incident captured every word, but not the part about Bounds yelling about blowing everybody up.

Sneaking the anchoring limitation bill through
FWC chose a representative from Cape Canaveral as the sponsor for the “Spottswood Bill” limiting anchoring in the Florida Keys. Our phone call to local state representative James Mooney last week was not returned.

On paper, the Board of Monroe County Commissioners voted to support the anchoring restriction bill. But in fact, the resolution was placed on the February 17, 2021 agenda the day of the meeting and it was bundled together with trivial issues such as appointments to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and disposal of 2015 financial records. It was approved in “bulk”, meaning without any discussion or opportunity for public comment.

FWC: “They’re all bums.”
The proposed anchoring limit will turn the lives of hundreds of the most vulnerable citizens in the Keys upside down.

80% of boats anchored near Wisteria Island “are workforce” noted Rich Jones of the County’s Marine Resources office in a November 20, 2020 report about the anchoring restriction bill. He also noted a disagreement with FWC Captain Dipre about that assessment: “He totally disagreed. He said they’re all bums.”

Should FWC be entrusted with making the rules?
FWC wants the legislature to give the agency broad rule-making authority to decide how the anchorage time limit will be implemented and enforced. In other words, FWC, not state legislators, will decide where and how far the “bums” would have to sail every three months.

Not much compassion should be expected. In 2017, following a ruling by the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, FWC was threatened with a massive class action suit over violations of boat owners’ constitutional rights. As it turned out, for almost twenty years, from Miami to Key West, FWC had been seizing and destroying valuable boats including liveaboard boats without warrant and without giving the owners any opportunity to be heard by a judge, in violation of due process.

A logistical nightmare
“I really don’t understand why they want to throw a bomb into our lives,” says Pascal Beregovois. She raised her daughter on a boat anchored near Wisteria Island and is a teacher at the Montessori School of Key West. “Most of the people out here are hard working. It’s not an easy life, but for many people this is all they can afford. Why make our lives even more difficult?”

Beregovois says that her boat never drags because the anchors have set deep into the mud. “I did not even drag during Hurricane Irma,” she says, “while every boat in the City’s mooring field did. My anchors will never be that well set if I have to pick them up every three months and re-secure them. This is really going to endanger my boat and even my life – and where would I go anyway?”

The logistics of the forced movement of hundreds of anchored liveaboard vessels in the Keys is not addressed in the bill. Where are all those boats going to go, where are the dinghy docks, the access to fresh water, where will they put their trash, park their cars to go to work every morning? Where will they shower? Boaters who anchor around Wisteria and Fleming Key pay for all those essential amenities which they find right in Key West harbor at the City-owned Key West Bight Marina.

Are desperate liveaboard boaters from Key West harbor going to pop up everywhere in the Keys? Are the hundreds of Florida Keys boat owners who anchor out going to try to anchor their boats in dangerous areas and end up aground or sunk in places that turn into death traps in bad weather?

The bill excludes boats in mooring fields, but Key West’s mooring field, with only 149 balls, is full all year long and no new mooring fields of significant size have been created in the Keys in over 20 years.

According to the professional marine salvor this measure puts “the cart before the horse”: “Logistically, it doesn’t make sense to move someone who is properly and safely at anchor to a place that would put their boat at risk since no other safe anchorage exists. Key West harbor is safe. It’s been used as a safe harbor for over a hundred years. Until more mooring fields are put in place there are no comparable safe anchorage areas for these hundreds of boaters to go.”

But of course this “nowhere to go” might be exactly what “Spottswood’s FWC” is aiming for.

Stay tuned."

 

In closing, thank you for taking the time to read this petition and please consider signing it to have the Monroe County anchoring limitation area provision stricken from house bill 639.