Special Report: Anchors . . . Away!

Anchoring restrictions in Florida's waterfront communities fly in the face of a state statute, but they continue to proliferate, and some sailors are madder 'n hell

June 28, 2004

On the surface, it’s a tranquil and picturesque scene: several dozen sailboats resting at anchor near Stuart, on Florida’s eastern coast. Stuart’s a medium-sized city of about 15,000 residents, and it’s surrounded on three sides by water, with St. Lucie Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the St. Lucie River to the north and west. While this geographic anomaly distinguishes it from other waterfront communities, one thing it has in common with them is what’s aboard those anchored sailboats–disgruntled owners.

That’s because last August, Stuart’s city commission–the mayor, vice mayor, and three commissioners–began enforcing an ordinance that prevents non-liveaboard vessels from anchoring for more than 10 days and liveaboard vessels from anchoring at all. What’s a “liveaboard” vessel? “If they’re living on it, we’d treat it as a liveaboard vessel,” said Carl Coffin, Stuart’s city attorney. “If they have a dinghy and come to shore and stay in a hotel, it’s a non-liveaboard.” As we’ll see, defining the term is part of the problem.

Never mind that the “Marine Advisory” on the Martin County website (http://sjr. /martin.html#5), under “Liveaboard Regulations,” proclaims: “Martin County generally does not limit how long you anchor in its waters except for Manatee Pocket, where you’re restricted to a stay of 72 hours.” That would have meant nothing to Tom Gill, owner of two sailboats he’d anchored there for months. When he could no longer anchor his boats, he was forced to make monthly payments on city-owned mooring balls at $223 apiece. “Who are these people?” Gill asked. “Five commissioners who’ve [probably] never been on a boat in their lives and know nothing about admiralty law, and they’re defining the right to navigate.”


Presumably, they’re also unfamiliar with Florida law, for the core of the anchoring controversy–Florida Statute 327.60(2)–concludes: “. . . local governmental authorities are prohibited from regulating the anchorage of non-liveaboard vessels engaged in the exercise of rights of navigation. . . .” The state’s definition of a “liveaboard” vessel, as stated in Florida Statute 327.02(16), is one that’s “used solely as a residence.”

Cash Sea Cow?
And Stuart is just the tip of the Florida-anchoring iceberg (see the map on page 24). Claiborne Young, the author of Cruising Guide to Eastern Florida and Cruising Guide to Western Florida and the co-author of Cruising the Florida Keys (all published by Pelican Publishing,, said that cruisers in Florida waters have much more to worry about than just their provisions and boat maintenance. With dozens of Florida cities each creating its own regulations, uniformity in laws from one anchorage to the next is virtually nonexistent. “It certainly does make Florida stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in the southeast,” he said.

“Cities in Florida have found their cash sea cow,” said Gill. Flashing a hint of an anarchic smile, he told of a group he’s formed called Boaters for Waterway Rights (e-mail [email protected] in an attempt to unite boat owners who are opposed to anti-anchoring ordinances, which he believes are created to unlawfully extort money from recreational mariners.
But it’s difficult to rally the troops against the new ordinance.


Most of the two dozen or so liveaboards in Stuart haven’t put up much resistance. One of them, John Dean, who’s traveled the world on his 32-footer, Jolie, a Nicholson sloop, has considered Stuart his home base for many years. When the yellow slip of paper warning of the new regulation arrived at his boat, he took the path of least resistance, saying, “I looked at the map in the telephone book and tried to find out the best I could precisely where the boundary of Stuart was.”

And just beyond that point is where his sloop joined about a dozen other boats whose owners preferred to trust their own ground tackle more than a mooring. Though Dean believed that the law was wrong, he said there was little he could do about it. “It’s a power grab on their part,” he said. “They’re powerful people, and we’re weak.”

Nowadays, waterfront-city governments need to be strong, for they’re facing big problems. According to the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Florida has seen an average annual increase of 286,000 new residents over the last 30 years, with undoubtedly a corresponding rise in the number of pleasure boats on the water. Whether or not marinas will be able to accommodate the increase in boats is yet to be determined. But Thomas Ankersen, a former legal advisor for Florida Sea Grant, believes the anchoring squeeze is only going to get tighter for recreational mariners.


Navigation Rights
Ankersen is director of the University of Florida’s Conservation Clinic, part of its Levin College of Law’s Center for Governmental Responsibility. He co-authored a 30-page report, Anchoring Away: Government Regulations and the Rights of Navigation in Florida, that examined the legality of anchoring ordinances. In it, he noted that city governments usually work around the State of Florida statute by either setting a time limit for how long these “rights of navigation” last or redefining the state’s definition of “liveaboard.”

In 1990, in State v. Hager, the Pinellas County Court upheld Clearwater’s anchoring ordinance, which stated that any vessel anchored for more than 72 hours within a 30-day period was no longer exercising the rights of navigation. But six months later, on the other side of the state, a court reached an opposite conclusion in a similar case. In State v. Frick, the 72-hour time limit in Riviera Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, was struck down by the court, which refused to define navigation within an “arbitrary time period of 72 hours.”

However, Holmes Beach, a little south of Tampa, chose the second option. Its city ordinances define a “liveaboard” boat as “. . . any watercraft, the whole or any part of which is utilized as a residence, living quarters, or for dwelling purposes, by one or more persons, either temporarily or permanently, whether continuously or transiently, with or without cooking facilities.” Once Holmes Beach defined “liveaboard,” its ordinance went on to state: “No liveaboard shall be anchored in waters within the corporate limits of the city.”


Alan Richard, a police captain with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and a former chairman of the Florida Bar Admiralty Law Committee, said that although larger cities typically have more traffic on their neighboring waterways, it’s usually the smaller cities that have these ordinances. “The bigger ones have better things to worry about,” he said.
Local anchoring ordinances tend to be created in response to people’s grievances regarding sewage discharge, littering, noise levels, or unsightly vessels in the anchorage, Richard observed, adding that passing a broad anchoring ordinance seemed unnecessary. “Most of the complaints one hears as the basis for regulating anchoring could easily be separately addressed,” he said.
In December 2001, the city of Tampa decided to clean up an area known as Davis Islands Seaplane Basin. Andy Bartley, who runs a one-man landscaping company in the city, found a letter on his boat informing him that he had 60 days to remove his boat or it would be impounded by the city. The letter asserted that his boat and others were anchored there without a permit, yet when he called to obtain a permit, he was told that permits didn’t exist.

“You’re telling me that I’m here illegally without a permit, but there are no permits,” he said. “It was a Catch-22.”

Bulldozer Politics
The city of Tampa then said that the boats must be moved because the owners were dumping sewage into the water, which is already prohibited by state law. “Governments don’t remove splinters with tweezers,” Bartley said. “They use a bulldozer.”

Bartley and some other boat owners decided to conduct a little research. After doing a title search, they found that the city didn’t own or lease the submerged land in question. He convinced about 20 owners to chip in $6,000, and hiring land-use attorneys, they were able to defeat the city in court. Even though Bartley wound up buying a boat that had a slip in a marina, he said he has no regrets. “I’m just real proud of our group because we stood up for our rights and showed the city that we weren’t going to let them walk all over us,” he said.

According to Ankersen, the main question is this: How long does a boat have to be anchored before its owners are no longer exercising the rights of navigation? “Any timeline you put on that is arbitrary,” he said. “While the ‘exercise of the rights of navigation’ hasn’t been defined judicially or statutorily, the Florida attorney general has stated that the right of navigation includes the right to anchor and moor. However, the attorney general noted that such a right doesn’t include the right to anchor indefinitely.”

Invariably, when a boat owner is defending his right to anchor, whether it be to a city council, a policeman, or a harbormaster, he or she will argue that anchoring is included within the right to navigate, which is protected by federal maritime law. Ankersen’s report examined several such cases and concluded, “Local regulation is not pre-empted by federal law.” But he does believe that cruisers stand a chance of overturning a city’s anchoring ordinance because of the wording of Florida Statute 327.6. Since the only cases testing the validity of cities’ anchoring ordinances have been in county courts, there’s not a clear standard for cities or owners to measure themselves against. “Until a case like this is challenged in an appeals court, we won’t have a legal precedent for how long the right to navigate lasts,” he said.

And, as Alan Richard said, “All it takes is one boater who’s sufficiently irritated.”

It would be extremely difficult to meet a boat owner more irritated than Vincent Sibilla. Having lived in Stuart on his 25-foot sloop, Morning Star, for the last eight years, Sibilla felt he had a duty to resist the city’s new law, and he’s managed to get himself arrested three times.

“I feel obligated,” he said. “I think it’s my right to anchor. There’s too many that died for these rights, and when we turn our backs tucker-tail and run, it’s just not right.”

Just as every channel has its own unique bottom and shoreline contours, every city has its own set of reasons why an anchoring ordinance might make sense. Chris Moser, manager of two municipal marinas in Panama City, on Florida’s Panhandle, which currently has no time limits, said her city has considered enacting anchoring ordinances–mainly because of derelict boats. Panama City has had three boats sink in the last two years, one of them a 50-foot ferro-cement hull. Moser said it would probably be easier to restrict anchoring than to acquire “abandoned” designations for the boats in question. “Going through the state to get [a boat] declared an abandoned vessel, you have to really want that boat [out of the way],” she said.

Riviera Beach Redux
George Carter, director of Riviera Beach Marina, is quite familiar with the debate. In addition to the city’s State v. Frick setback, Riviera Beach lost three other court cases involving its ill-fated 72-hour ordinance. But after years without such a rule, Carter said it was time for the city to regulate anchoring again, and a new ordinance that went into effect in mid-April sets a time limit of 30 days within a six-month period.

He said the lack of an anchoring ordinance has also caused Riviera Beach to experience a flood of liveaboards who’ve run from neighboring towns with restrictions. He said many cities use “indirect harassment” by instructing their marine patrol units to frequently search boats. “They’ll be on your boat everyday checking something,” he said, adding that there are just too many people complaining to simply ignore the issue. “It’s a democracy, and the majority is ruling.”

Back in Stuart, city attorney Carl Coffin said that the new anchoring ordinances are legal and necessary. “Every coastal city with navigable waters is concerned about a so-called ‘Hong Kong harbor’ developing,” he said. The term, he explained, is synonymous with a raucous community of boaters who violate noise ordinances and discharge sewage. Coffin mirrored Carter’s sentiments that if Stuart is the only city that allows free anchoring, its waters will be overrun with boats. “We’ve had boats that have anchored and been unattended for months at a time,” he said.

It doesn’t appear that many cruisers mind the anchoring policy because during the season, Stuart’s mooring field remains filled to close to capacity. Mike Messier, the assistant dockmaster at Stuart City Marina, isn’t worried. He knows that Stuart’s attributes–its strategic proximity to the Bahamas for awaiting a weather window, its abundance of boating stores, and its easy walkability–are more than enough to keep cruisers and sport fishermen coming, whether or not they have to pay. “A lot of people come to Stuart and stop,” he said. “It’s a funky little town, I’ll tell you that.”

Coffin doesn’t believe the new laws will drive cruisers away. “We’re trying to be a good community for boaters,” he said. “But at the same time, boaters have to recognize that they can create a problem for cities, and we’re just trying to avoid that.”

The Future
The big challenge of the future will be to find a place to keep a boat in Florida. “No question about it,” said Tom Ankersen.

Valerie Jones feels that the outlook is bleak. She believes most sailors want nothing to do with fighting the laws. The general apathy in the cruising community, she said, could be because there’s nothing new about anchoring wars, and over the years, they’ve worn out some of the troops.

In the late 1980s, Stuart considered passing a law that would restrict anchoring to several days. In response, Valerie Jones and about 20 other sailors formed a group called Concerned Boaters. Before long, said Jones, the owner of a Stuart packaging company, Concerned Boaters had 4,000 members that spanned the country.

After appearing at numerous city commission meetings, they succeeded in getting the city to reconsider the new law. “We pretty much talked them out of it,” she said.

But this wasn’t accomplished without great emotional cost to Jones. After two protracted lawsuits against the city–one for access to public records, the other a response to the city’s use of a private investigator to infiltrate Concerned Boaters–Jones said she’d had enough. “Frankly, I burned out on the issue a long time ago, and the people who were asking me to help, I told them that I thought they needed to leave a long time ago and that I wasn’t going to lift a finger.

“People who are out there on boats cruising don’t want to be involved. They’ve pretty much had it. And, to a degree anyway, they’ve had it with society, and they’re taking a break.”

Only one thing’s for sure in this anchoring controversy: As long as recreational mariners choose to hook up to a $10 mooring rather than beat into the perplexing sea of governmental bureaucracy, the laws probably won’t be written in their favor.


Isaac Brown is a photojournalism graduate of the University of Florida and a newly U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain. He plans to return to UF in the fall to get his master’s in documentary filmmaking. You can find out more about Isaac and his activities at his website (


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