State statute limits ‘no wake’ zones

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Commissioners approved an ordinance to set “no wake” zones on area waterways at their Dec. 12 meeting, and looked for ways to reduce the damage boat wakes cause to docks, other boats and seawalls.

County Parks and Recreation Director Albie Scoggins said changes to state statute have made it more difficult for counties to limit boating speeds.

In accordance with the restrictions set by the state, the county ordinance establishes an idle speed, no-wake, boating-restricted area, if the area is:

• Within 500 feet of any boat ramp, hoist, marine railway, or other launching or landing facility available for use by the general boating public on waterways more than 300 feet in width or within 300 feet of any boat ramp, hoist, marine railway, or other launching or landing facility available for use by the general boating public on waterways not exceeding 300 feet in width;

• Within 500 feet of fuel pumps or dispensers at any marine fueling facility that sells motor fuel to the general boating public on waterways more than 300 feet in width or within 300 feet of the fuel pumps or dispensers at any licensed terminal facility that sells motor fuel to the general boating public on waterways not exceeding 300 feet in width;

• Inside or within 300 feet of any lock structure;

The ordinance establishes a slow speed, minimum wake boating-restricted area if the area is:

• Within 300 feet of any bridge fender system;

• Within 300 feet of any bridge span presenting a vertical clearance of less than 25 feet or a horizontal clearance of less than 100 feet;

• On a creek, stream, canal, or similar linear waterway if the waterway is less than 75 feet in width from shoreline to shoreline;

• On a lake or pond of less than 10 acres in total surface area.

The ordinance establishes a vessel-exclusion zone if the area is:

• Designated as a public bathing beach or swim area;

• Within 300 feet of a dam, spillway, or flood control structure.

“We worked closely with FWC and the South Florida Water Management District to identify areas where no wake zones are appropriate,” he said.

“Before we can move forward with installation of the waterway buoys we have to pass or revise our ordinance based on the state statute.

“State statute limits our ability to pick and choose where the waterway buoys go,” he said.

Some parts of the waterways in Okeechobee County are not 300 feet wide, he explained.

“We have heard from our constituents they would prefer to have some markers in those waterways to slow the boats down, but by law and by statute we cannot do it,” he said.

“Once ordinance is approved, the parks department will come back with an RFP to place the new markers in areas approved by FWC,” he said.

“We will use a bigger buoy that is easier to see,” he said. This will also make it more difficult for vandals to take them out of the water, he added.

Michael Hatten of the River Oak Acres Homeowners Association said his neighborhood has a one-mile-long stretch with 40 homes, which has a continual problem with speeding boats.

“Boats consistently travel at great rates of speed very close to docks and people in boats,” he said.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread noted the VFW post on U.S. 441 S.E. has complained about the speed the boats pass the VFW Post on the Rim Canal.

“There are about 20 docks there that on weekends people have their boats there on the weekend,” said Chairman Terry Burroughs.

The wake from boats going by at high speed is damaging boats, damaging the docks and has damaged the sea wall, he said.

“The regulations and statutes that we have to abide by don’t give us the ability to place markers in the areas that we feel need markers,” said Mr. Scoggins.

“For instance at Lock 7 we can place buoys just in a radius coming out of the boat ramps,” he continued.

He said in the past they had buoys to the west of the boat ramps, but due to changes in the statute, those buoys had to be removed.

He said at Okee-Tantie from the marina heading north toward Scott Driver under the bridge, the county won’t have any buoys.

“We have some challenges and it’s a little difficult to understand at times with all of the different jurisdictions that have to weigh in on the process,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got it as good as we can have it with our waterway markers. We will put it out for bid and have the underwater contractor install those,” Mr. Scoggins said.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said he lives in River Acres. “We’ve had a lot of docks damaged and boats damaged,” he said.

Commissioner Hazellief noted the plan will not solve the problem at the VFW.

He said the state statute allows the county to restrict boat speeds in within 500 feet of a hoist.

“River Oak Acres and River Acres have a lot of hoists,” he said. “I would think that in the VFW area, somebody has a hoist as well.”

He suggested that asking for no wake zones near the hoists could solve the problem in those areas.

“We were not aware of the hoists,” said Mr. Scoggins.

“I think FWC has been really clear in trying not to over-regulate the signage and the buoys on the waterway,” he said.

“We can go back to them and get a clarification so that we don’t violate anything we have already done,” he added.

“We are trying to get the things as user friendly as we can,” Mr. Scoggins said. “There are a lot of areas on our lake that really need markers, they need buoys, they need no wake zones, they need slow speed zones. The state really regulates what we can do,” he said.

“The statutes have changed,” said County Attorney John Cassels.

“It still requires FWC to approve where you are proposing to do it,” he said.

The attorney said he believes the county has an avenue to argue for no wake or slow speed zones in areas with hoists.

“I want to make sure this ordinance encompasses the VFW and the manatee zones,” said Commissioner Hazellief. “To me, the only thing that would qualify River Acres is the hoist.”

“I have been at the VFW and seen boats come through there 40 mph and it slams all of the boats up against the docks,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

“I think you need to make your requests to FWC about where we want to put the markers in and see what they will approve,” said county administrator Robbie Chartier.
Commissioner Hazellief suggested the county put notices at the boat ramps.

“We have a lot of northern visitors who don’t know the area, and who don’t know the regulations as well,” he said.

 

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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