Imagine a map of Florida. Now ask yourself: what’s the most prominent geographical feature of the state? You might have said: it’s surrounded on three sides by water. That makes it a haven for boaters. But what about the boats themselves – what happens when they’re not in use? The boats are often abandoned -- but there’s legislation aimed at fixing that.
The problem is so pervasive that the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an entire program devoted to derelict vessels. Phil Horning is the program’s coordinator. He’s kept busy by the number of complaints that hit his desk.
“I have about 470 in my database that are active cases that our agency and 59 other law enforcement agencies are working through our database," Horning says. "If I were to throw a guesstimate out there as to the number of derelict vessels that could be removed, it would probably be in the neighborhood of 1500.”
What’s worse, he says, is that the problem isn’t confined to one locality – kind of like the water on which the boats sit.
“We have a map with all of the derelict vessel cases that we are working. And if you were to remove the map and just look at the dots, you would have an outline of Florida,” he says.
The biggest problem the boats pose is danger to other vessels. Chris Castelli, a marine patrol office with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, says his county has spent about $50,000 in the last year trying to salvage several derelict boats which, if left alone, wouldn’t appear on navigation charts.
“They won’t be marked on there. And so somebody who is maybe in the area for the first time, a new boater or somebody visiting our area would have a potential to hit one," Castelli says. "Luckily, we never had one hit.”
But Castelli says removing the boats is only part of the problem – there’s also the confusing issue of trying to prosecute the party responsible for abandoning them. And when a county task force tried to do just that over the last year, Castelli says it wasn’t always easy.
“We would go and find the person whose name was registered in the vessel and when we contacted them, they said ‘Well no, I sold that vessel five years ago’ or ten years ago even,” he says.
It’s a problem for the state, too.
“I’m looking at a case where the owners of a vessel say they sold the vessel 22 years ago and are now facing charges for a derelict vessel,” Horning says.
Rep. Charles Van Zant’s (R-Keystone Heights) gives explicit rights to move such vessels out of waterways – and to do so at the owner’s expense. Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t help solve the problem Castelli and Horning are dealing with. Still, Van Zant says his bill clears up some murky legal waters law enforcement agencies have struggled to navigate in the past.
“The FWC and the Coast Guard have a big problem there," Van Zant says. "They have to go through a lot of legal gymnastics to get the vessel moved. And the Coast Guard’s solution, especially with larger vessels, is to commandeer it, cut it apart, send it to salvage.”
If his bill passes, Van Zant says he hopes that sort of freedom will actually grow industry in the state.
“I believe it’ll bring another business opportunity to Florida," he says. "You’re going to see people who are going to be in the boat towing business or storage business that haven’t been there before.
Another bill, from Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven), allows for a different type of boat removal. His bill gives wider leeway to tow vehicles – including boats on trailers – that sit empty on someone else’s land without first alerting the owner of the impending removal.