The number of visitors arriving to Gulfport by boat has risen in recent years, with most patronizing area businesses and boosting the local economy, city officials say. However, officials also believe that some boaters are taking advantage of the community’s open arms.
“We’ve had quite a lot of activity on the beach and near the beach from folks that live on boats” anchored in Boca Ciega Bay, Police Chief Robert Vincent said in an interview January 15. “In my opinion, it’s a huge nuisance.”
Vincent says the increase in the number of boats anchoring offshore has been accompanied by more reports of ordinance violations along the waterfront, such as people drinking alcohol, sleeping on the beach, pan handling and being on the beach after hours. Police have also received complaints of visitors using city electricity to recharge their phones and laptops.
Denis Frain, Gulfport’s long-time marina operations director, agrees. “The city is fed up with irresponsible boat owners and squatters,” he said January 21. A number of run-down vessels anchored in the bay – some without masts, motors or even registrations – are being used as “affordable housing,” he said.
Frain says such boats can be navigational hazards and environmental polluters if their residents dump waste and sewage in the water. Typically they continue to deteriorate and are either abandoned or become unmoored, washing up on shore, where they can cause damage.
“It’s expensive to get rid of these boats,” Frain said. In the past year or so, the city and county have been forced to dispose of about eight abandoned or derelict vessels in Gulfport, he said. Earlier this month, a boat someone was clearly living in got loose in a storm, crashing against the Recreation Center seawall.
“As a taxpayer it kind of upsets me,” Frain said.
The city has sought to entice more boaters to town by expanding its offerings. The floating dock behind the Casino was upgraded last summer to accommodate more boats, and ground was broken earlier this month on a $700,000 marina headquarters expansion that will include a dayroom/lounge, television, wireless Internet, laundry facilities, restrooms and the harbormaster’s office. Various iterations of Gulfport City Council have also debated plans for a municipal mooring field over the past decade; the most recent proposal did not make it into the 2015-16 budget.
Vincent said, however, he didn’t think a mooring field would necessarily solve the problem of nuissance boaters.
“They would anchor right outside the regulated area,” he said, adding that most of the bay is beyond the city limits.
In mid January, city officials estimated there were about 50 boats anchored in the bay. These were in addition to vessels in slips at the city’s marina or at the short-term dock behind the Gulfport Casino.
City Manager Jim O’Reilly said January 19 that there are two types of boaters who anchor off shore. Many come to patronize its restaurants and stores, but others “basically come in and abuse the city’s services.”
He said he hears of boaters making a mess in municipal restrooms on the beach and by the Casino, taking toiletries and using city power.
“I couldn’t quantify it,” he said of the possible cost to the city. “I get anecdotal reports from my staff.”
Vincent said there are no figures for the number of complaints related to boaters. Most of them fall under the general category of “ordinance violations,” which includes a wide variety of situations, he said. However, sleeping on the beach or a bench during the day, for example, is not a violation.
Florida law does not limit the amount of time vessels can anchor in one place and it prevents municipal governments from regulating boat owners, Vincent said. Thus there’s not much Gulfport can do to crack down on problematic boat owners.
“The law is on their side,” he said.
Police do patrol the bay looking for safety violations and check anchor lights at night, Vincent said. “The difficulty is that a lot of times there’s nobody on board, or whoever is on board is pretending to not be on board,” he said. “We don’t have the right to board a boat … They know that and they hide.”
Getting help to those living on boats can also be complicated. Vincent cited a recent case in which police received a report of a domestic altercation involving people who then paddled out to a boat anchored in the bay. Response to such situations, which require police to launch their own boat, can delay assistance by as much as half an hour.
“That’s incredibly dangerous,” he said.
Those living in the bay do not consider themselves homeless and generally refuse referrals to services made by his officers, Vincent said. People who are truly homeless, he said, tend to be found living in their cars at spots throughout the city or camped in the woods in Clam Bayou behind the Twin Brooks golf course.
Several vessels anchored in the bay are home to people who work in Gulfport and commute back and forth in their dinghies, which they park at the dock behind the Casino, Frain said. These vessels and their owners are not the problem, he added.
On December 1, to head off potential problems at the short-term dock, council passed an ordinance to discourage nuisance activities by boaters, O’Reilly said. A large sign at the entrance of the dock outlines a number of rules, including moorings limited to four hours, dock closure between 3 and 7 a.m., and a prohibition on leaving personal items, such as bicycles, on the dock.
O’Reilly said he didn’t expect further action by council on the issue until the effect of the new ordinance can be assessed.