Are Working Waterfronts At Risk?

By Ryck Lydecker

A land rush 10 years ago gobbled up marinas and boatyards, leading to slip shortages and beached marine businesses. The economy is recovering, but are things any different today?

Photo of the Seattle Maritime FestivalThe port of Seattle, Washington, has a broad mix of facilities and supporting services for recreational and commercial boating, integrated within a major industrial harbor. (Photo: Port of Seattle)

Florida's state legislature enacted a landmark Working Waterfront law in 2005 that required municipalities on the water to encourage the preservation of recreational and commercial water-dependent businesses. The measure came in response to rapidly escalating waterfront real-estate assessments, which had driven up property taxes on tight-margin businesses like marinas. In too many cases, those marinas couldn't stay afloat and sold out to residential developers. What quickly became labeled "condo creep" had resulted not just in slip shortages but also led to a decline in marine-service providers such as boatyards and the small businesses that recreational boaters relied on.

Other water-dependent businesses, such as commercial fishing and tour-boat companies, yacht brokerages, and charter-fishing operations, faced the same threats, and not just in Florida but in many other parts of the country, too. The situation led to the formation of a national network of working-waterfront advocates who shared local solutions — planning tools, policy measures, and legal instruments — that were designed to protect water-dependent businesses from coast to coast and to enhance public access to the water.

This network first came together in May 2007 at the first-ever National Working Waterfronts and Waterways Symposium organized by BoatUS and Virginia Sea Grant Extension.

Today, with the economic recovery underway, boating is making a strong comeback along with other sectors of the maritime small-business economy. New powerboat sales are up almost 8 percent year over year through July ( according to Info-Link Technologies, Inc.), and both sailboat and personal-watercraft sales posted healthy increases.

"The displacement of water-dependent uses occurs periodically as the real estate market goes through its cycles," reports Jack Wiggan, director of the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a founding member of the National Working Waterfront Network. "Widespread concern hasn't surfaced recently, perhaps because of policy responses put in place earlier. But the value of real estate is again on the rise, so there's no reason to believe that pressure to convert working waterfront properties won't increase."

Wiggan notes other factors that can exacerbate the effects of the real-estate market. These include the decline of commercial fishing in some parts of the country, which can leave-waterfront properties vulnerable, hurting local marine businesses supplying services and equipment to recreational boaters as well as to commercial operators. He points to the Gloucester, Massachusetts, waterfront, where a 100-room hotel and event center under construction has displaced traditional seafood businesses.

Figuring Out The Future

But should that matter to recreational boaters there or in other parts of the country where a decline in one segment of local maritime business leaves the entire working-waterfront economy vulnerable? Or even in places where recreational boating hasn't recovered completely yet? "Here's the problem," says Wendy Larimer of the Association of Marina Industries, a national trade group. "Is a marina that's struggling to stay afloat, with slips only half full, still a working waterfront? And if it is, should it matter if the property goes condo and the boaters simply relocate? There was more pressure years ago because marinas were full, with waiting lists." Larimer cites several marina owners she knows who are at retirement age and would likely sell to the highest bidder. And in the current economy, that could mean developers in the second-home or retirement-community market.

"Outside of privately owned marinas, public ones are selling out, too, because local governments are looking to save money," Larimer continues. "So, yes, you could say that working waterfronts are still threatened. After all, there's only so much waterfront land." In times now long passed, Wiggan notes, maritime cities and towns could create new waterfront sites by dredging and filling along natural shorelines. "It's difficult to imagine that happening under today's environmental laws. So the waterfront we have has to support current and future demand. That means accommodating traditional uses like recreational boating, of course, but also emerging uses — aquaculture, for example — as well as yet-unimagined maritime activities. It's prudent policy to retain existing sites for uses requiring a waterfront location, then accommodate non-water-dependent uses elsewhere."

That policy is at the core of BoatUS's involvement in working-waterfront issues, according to BoatUS president Margaret Bonds Podlich: "Whether it's potential loss of wet slips to condos, permit delays for new construction, outdated launching areas, threatened- and endangered-species restrictions, or impasses over shallow-draft dredging, recreational boating is a key focus in these national meetings. But since we started them in 2007, our goal has been to find solutions to preserve the working waterfronts — not just to focus on the problems, but to help fix them."

For a look at the breadth of contemporary working-waterfront issues that face the boating industry and other segments of the maritime small-business economy — issues that affect all recreational boaters — you can review case studies from many parts of the country and find a "toolbox" of policy solutions by visiting the National Working Waterfront Network website. 

Ryck Lydecker retired from our Government Affairs and BoatUS Magazine teams in 2013, but continues to write about policy issues and other feature topics.

— Published: October/November 2015

Conference To Focus On The "Derelict Dilemma"

A panel discussion in Florida sponsored by BoatUS during the fourth National Working Waterfronts and Waterways Symposium, in Tampa, November 16 to 19, will focus on finding solutions to the problem of abandoned and derelict small craft, including neglected boats that can be seen in backyards, empty lots, and boatyards. Whether abandoned by their owners or merely laid-up and forgotten, such boats pose navigational, environmental, and land-use challenges across the country. The panel will examine:

  • The Washington State program to remove and dispose of abandoned vessels using a portion of recreational-boat registration fees.
  • Florida's pre-emptive law-enforcement approach to keeping boats from becoming abandoned in the first place.
  • Small-boat disposal operations in Europe and Japan that recycle fiberglass scrap as raw material for such industrial applications as building construction or roadways. This session will examine obstacles in the United States that currently prevent the development of what could be a new small-business opportunity for the marine-trades industry.


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