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Will Florida Finally Settle Its Anchoring Issues

After navigating a difficult but methodical public process some 10 years in the making, the Florida legislature may be about to forge a commonsense anchoring policy that would apply throughout Sunshine State waters. Maybe ...

Florida anchoring

Florida boaters are asking the state for reasonable anchoring rules, rather than a jumble of inconsistent local laws. (Photo:

Until a dozen or so years ago, if you'd been cruising in Florida waterways and wanted to ­overnight at anchor, you'd look for a secure, out-of the-way spot and just drop the hook, right? Well, yes, back then. But in recent years, it's become more complicated, and even contentious.

Cruisers, with increasing frequency, came to dread a nighttime "thump on the hull" from someone in uniform aboard a local law-enforcement patrol boat. The encounter could range from a semi-friendly "Sorry, captain, you can't anchor here" to handing the skipper a citation for "anchoring illegally" in city or county waters.

Huh? These are navigable waters, aren't they?

Correct, but under federal law, the state retains jurisdiction over most of its bottomlands, and in Florida, the state let local jurisdictions exercise that authority. In the case of navigation, that turned into increased regulations — even prohibitions — on anchoring. Snowbirds passing through, who for years had anchored unmolested in the same spot, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a law they knew nothing about, and even some resident boaters, to their surprise, became lawbreakers.

Confusion and outright conflict increasingly confronted responsible cruising boaters as local jurisdictions began to exercise authority, and write regulations, to control or, worse, ban anchoring outright. Florida, or at least certain parts, began to lose its "boater-friendly" reputation, and that's bad news in a state where recreational boating is the third largest industry — a $32 billion economic engine even bigger than the citrus industry, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents boat, marine-engine, and accessory manuacturers nationwide.

Call it a confluence of crossed purposes and unintended consequences in the early years of the new millennium. Boating boomed, registrations increased, and Florida became a bucket-list cruising ground for both natives and out-of-staters. At the same time, waterfront home construction took off, but increasing numbers of tax-paying, high-end home owners decided they didn't like to see boats constantly anchored within view. So they began putting pressure on their local governments to, essentially, "get rid of them."

And to be sure, in some places vessels dropped anchor and stayed, and stayed, eventually being abandoned by owners who couldn't keep them up, leaving them as an eyesore to those who enjoy the waters or the view. Then the spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 made Florida's derelict-vessel problem even more trying for local governments, as owners walked away from uninsured or underinsured storm-trashed boats.

Who's In Charge?

The anchoring issue really came to a head in 2006, when Miami Beach passed a city ordinance limiting boats to seven days at anchor. That led other cities, like Sarasota, Marco Island, and Fort Lauderdale, to pass their own rules. A 2007 test case by a local boater against the Marco Island ordinance led to a two-and-a-half-year legal battle. The city ultimately lost the case and chose not to appeal it, thanks in part to a change in state law that BoatUS, in alliance with several boating-industry groups, convinced Tallahassee lawmakers to pass in 2009.

"It's fair to say the piecemeal patchwork of laws proved as confusing and frustrating to law enforcement as it did to boaters," says BoatUS government affairs manager David Kennedy. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the state agency that regulates boating and waterways, had been dealing with the fallout from this jumble of regulations for several years, Kennedy notes, and the agency supported the 2009 law limiting local government authority to regulate anchoring.

"The law gave control back to the state and prohibited local anchoring ordinances," Kennedy adds. "But it also charged FWC to go a step further and explore solutions to the anchoring conundrum through what's called the Anchoring and Mooring Pilot Program."

Weighing Anchor Toward Solutions

FWC selected five local governments to participate: Saint Augustine, Stuart/Martin County, Saint Petersburg, Sarasota, and Monroe County, which includes most of the Florida Keys. The pilot program required each jurisdiction to have a designated public mooring field (or at least one under construction) in order to test policies and develop workable regulations for anchoring in open waters outside those mooring fields. Within that overriding goal, the pilot program aimed to develop tools that would, for example, establish reasonable anchoring setback distances from shoreline property, from such maritime infrastructure as piers and launching areas, and from sensitive marine habitat.

Another important objective: prevent boats left on the hook from falling into disrepair and becoming hazards to navigation and the marine environment, which dovetailed with FWC's separate and successful At-Risk Vessel Program started in November 2010. Also, the pilot programs are intended to lead to more and better-managed public mooring fields, a benefit to local boaters and transients alike.

"One critically important component spelled out in the law in each pilot jurisdiction is that all planning and regulatory development had to include consultation with local stakeholders, including boaters," says Kennedy, who helped organize BoatUS members and other recreational boaters to speak up en masse in open public meetings, surveys, and in writing.

While the pilot program developed over several years, the 2009 law establishing it addressed an immediate problem by defining the term "liveaboard vessel" as one "used solely as a residence and not for navigation."

"That went a long way toward reducing the hassle factor for legitimate cruising boaters, even while the pilot program was underway," Kennedy says.

Nonetheless, several years later some South Florida cities tried to convince state lawmakers to exempt their jurisdictions from the 2009 law, and that would have, in essence, put the anchoring issue back to square one in those waters. In the 2014 legislative session, and again in 2015, several South Florida counties lobbied — unsuccessfully, it's worth noting — to change the 2009 law so they could go back to regulating local anchoring.

In the 2016 legislative session, the proponents narrowed their focus and convinced state lawmakers to enact a state ban on overnight anchoring in three specific areas. Despite an outcry from boaters, in March, Florida governor Rick Scott refused to veto that bill, and the law banning overnight anchoring in three specific areas of Broward and Miami-Dade counties went into effect on July 1 of this year. While that played out in Tallahassee, however, BoatUS and the same boating coalition that developed the 2009 law convinced the legislature to add language nullifying the overnight anchoring ban in the two counties once the state enacts a consistent anchoring policy.

Next Step: Find Good Holding Ground

"Now we have to take the lessons learned during the entire seven-year pilot program and ensure that they lead to commonsense solutions," says Kennedy. "Because of boater involvement, this has been a very comprehensive review of options. We expect the work of the five pilot jurisdictions to present a real-world blueprint that the legislature can use to craft equitable state law that will ensure that active, responsible boaters have the mooring and anchoring options they need when cruising in the waters of the Sunshine State."

A final report from FWC to the governor and the legislature is due January 1, 2017. Legislative action to implement program recommendations is expected during Florida's spring legislative term.

Update: The final FWC report is available online here.

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Ryck Lydecker

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Ryck Lydecker is a fisherman and formerly part of our BoatUS Government Affairs team.