by Arnaud and Naja Girard…
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 can be expected to enforce a five-mile minimum distance for the boat owner to drop anchor again.
“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 House Bill 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 measure 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 a 197-unit 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.
SEE RELATED: Key West Hotel Fences Off Public Beach
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 197 unit 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. But in fact, the resolution was added to the agenda at the beginning of the February 17th commission meeting, and was bundled together with trivial issues such as appointments to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and disposal of 2015 financial records. It was then approved in “bulk”, meaning it was passed 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 Celia Hitchins of the County’s Marine Resources office in a November 20, 2020 report about the anchoring restriction bill. She 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.
Full disclosure: Arnaud Girard has a pending declaratory judgment action challenging FWC’s discriminatory use of the derelict vessel and at-risk vessel laws.
- This article has been updated to reflect that Mr. Spottswood’s plans for the Marina property near Boca Chica Bay include authorizations for up to a 197-unit hotel. The original article stated “80+”.
- The original article referred to notes about a conversation with FWC Captain David Dipre written by Rich Jones of Monroe County Marine Resources; however, the conversation with Captain Dipre was with Celia Hitchins of Monroe County Marine Resources and the notes were hers. The article has been updated to correct that error.
Update: A local Boaters group has a petition making the rounds on Change.org:
* For sailboats 100 yards and back within 15 minutes.
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