ENGLEWOOD — Frustrated boaters have a new nickname for Chadwick Cove, a small patch of Lemon Bay not far from Englewood Beach.
They call it “Shipwreck Cove” because of the sunken and half-sunken boats that dot the cove.
That frustration has been building after repeated complaints to law enforcement, Charlotte County and Florida Wildlife Commission. They haven't helped remove the half-dozen derelict boats.
Kris Wallace says she has complained about unattended sailboats and other vessels junked in Chadwick Cove for three years. She believes the boats there can be legally classified as derelict boats — "left, abandoned, wrecked or substantially dismantled condition."
"These boats are listing so badly on their side that you couldn't get them upright," she said. "I'm sure they've leaked battery acid and every other chemical into Lemon Bay. No one's claiming or fixing them."
Wallace was told new regulations tied the hands of local and state officials. Despite that explanation, Charlotte County touts online that in 2015, the administrative code was changed to mirror the state statue for derelict and at-risk boats. In an online brochure "Abandoned Vessel Program" published by Charlotte County, the code change was supposed to make it easier and "allowed the County to assist in the removal of abandoned vessels."
So when a sailboat drifted between her dock and a neighbor's, Wallace called the agencies listed on the brochure. The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded. After meeting with law enforcement officials, Wallace was left bewildered.
"Very nice deputies from the Charlotte County Marine Unit, along with FWC, came out and spent five hours with me looking at these boats," she said.
"They told me that if I touch these boats, it's my financial responsibility to remove them. Why am I responsible for a abandoned boat that's been there for months that FWC or the sheriff's office knows about? I was told their hands are tied and there's nothing they can do."
In 2017, the law changed. Following a lawsuit, the state must allow derelict boat owners the chance to have an administrative hearing to get their vessel back from the government before it's seized and destroyed.
Paul Bigness says this new delay in the removal process allowed Chadwick Cove waters to be littered with derelict boats, making it unsafe to navigate. It's dangerous at night for boaters who don't know these derelict boats are there, the longtime Englewood resident says.
"There are no lights on these boats," he said.
Many of the sunken boats are plainly visible from the Emil Swepston Bridge on Beach Road, the route to the beaches of Manasota Key.
"I don't think any of this is good for tourism," he said. "You come over the bridge headed to Englewood Beach and the first thing you see on the left side is a listing sailboat, then another."
Bigness also contends these boats drag their anchors across the bay floor, tearing up sea grass. He also worries that during hurricane season, decaying boat parts could break off and become flying missiles.
"These boats have gas, an oil tank, motor oil, hydraulic fluid, power steering fluid, battery acid and diesel fuel. Most have bathrooms, so they have septic and sewage," Bigness said. "These submerged boats become quite a toxic cocktail of chemicals being disbursed into the water and mangroves."
Bigness regularly brings up these issues at meetings of the Charlotte County Marine Advisory Committee, of which he is volunteer member. He says people are using the open waterway as a storage facility.
At the last meeting, Charlotte County Specialist Roger DeBruler told the committee he received "many calls" and has been in touch with FWC about the derelict boats.
"The owners of the other boats have not been contacted, therefore the clock cannot start until notice has been given and a response has been received by the owner," he told the group.
Why aren't local agencies doing more?
"Since 2015, we were removing boats within 18 days," DeBruler explained. "If we couldn't find the owner, we gave six days to respond. Then we paid a contractor ($89 per foot) to pull the boat out of the water. It was stored at the landfill for 30 more days before destroying it. Then the owner was sent a bill."
In 2016, the county removed 26 derelict boats, DeBruler said.
Today, 18 boats are identified as derelict in Charlotte County, with four in Chadwick Cove. One is scheduled to be removed in the near future, he said.
"In 2017, everything changed after a man on the other side of the state sued, and the state had to buy him a boat," DeBruler said. "Now it takes more time to remove a boat."
DeBruler now sends registered "letter after letter" trying to notify derelict boat owners before law enforcement can begin an investigation.
"The notification process went from a five-day period to 21 days for the owner to respond," he said. "Then it all depends when they get hold of the owner to sign a document saying they understand the laws pertaining to that vessel.
"If we get no response, the boat could be still sitting there for months. We don't know where to go from there. Once we notify the owner, then and only then can the officer actually put a sticker on the boat and then the clock begins to tick for removal."
DeBruler said some boat owners are just hard to find, which ties the hands of local enforcement agencies.
What does the sheriff's office do?
According to the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, a deputy determines if this vessel is derelict or at risk of becoming derelict. The deputy "may" issue an at-risk civil citation, if the owner can be identified.
"This can take time, since many of these vessels have changed hands and/or the last known registered owner may reside outside Charlotte County," wrote Katie Heck, CCSO spokewoman in an email to the Sun. "Once these investigative efforts have been exhausted, then the vessel will entered as derelict and the State (FWC) will begin the process of removal.
"Due to recent court rulings, strict guidelines must be adhered to such as holding a public hearing before removal takes place," she wrote. "Once these guidelines have been met, then removal can begin. There are also plans in place that can speed up the process, should the derelict vessel pose certain hazards to the environment and/or a hazard to navigation may exist."
The Sheriff's Office says the Florida Wildlife Commission is handling the complaints for Chadwick Cove.
FWC sets the record straight
Phil Horning is the administrator who heads the FWC Derelict Vessel Program and oversees the statewide grant applications from counties applying to recover costs for removing derelict boats.
He said DeBruler and others may not be correctly interpreting the new language, which may be delaying the removal process.
"First of all, any sworn officer can investigate a complaint of a derelict boat," Horning said. "So Charlotte County Sheriff's Office can handle these complaints and do investigations anywhere in the county and not just the FWC.
"The FWC will investigate a complaint if we are called. I don't believe FWC would tell any resident that the agency's hands are tied before an investigation is complete, and especially if the vessel meets the legal requirement of being a derelict boat. Our employees have been trained under the new law."
Horning said each county and local law enforcement agency can create its own procedures for notifying a boat owner under the law. However, FWC offers training on how it handles derelict boat owners.
"What we've added is a civil rights packet when sending a registered letter to a boat owner," he said. "It's the only real thing that's new.
"We agreed that the person we are attempting to notify deserves the right to ask for an administrative hearing to recover their boat. That wasn't happening prior to 2017. The citation we send explains the vessel is derelict and the owner has 21 days to respond. The additional new packet explains if the boat owner wants to challenge this, they can file for an administrative hearing in Tallahassee.
"If the person doesn't respond after the allotted time, we've legally done our due diligence in attempting to locate them and allow them to file for a hearing to stop the boat from being removed," he said. "Then we move forward. We send one letter. We don't have to wait months and months for an administrate hearing if there's no response after the deadline from the date the letter was sent."
Horning said the process takes anywhere from 90 to 120 days.
"Each case is a little different," he said. "But, by no means should it take a year or more for a legally derelict boat to be removed. Charlotte County doesn't even have to go through FWC if it wants to do derelict boat removal on its own, especially if they are not applying for the grant or seeking FWC funds. They can work through the sheriff's office exclusively. It all depends how committed a county government wants to be in this process. They have three different pots of money to use for derelict boat removal.
"As long as they follow the statue, they can do what they want," he said. "We are not there to tell them what to do, we are there to train or guide them if they need help or want funding."
Horning said if there's confusion about the program, new laws, among county officials or others, he can help. Also, the West County Inland Navigation District can help as well. Charlotte County is a member of this four-county district that can help pay for derelict boat removal.
"It sounds like FWC needs to sit down and talk with Charlotte County, the sheriff's office and the West Coast Island Navigation District," Horning said.
"Also, they can call me. I believe we can get things straightened out and get these derelict boats moved out of the water."