ENGLEWOOD — Paul Bigness says finger pointing between government agencies continues as more derelict boats pile up in Englewood waterways.
“It’s season,” said the longtime Englewood resident. “The first thing tourists see when they come over the Tom Adams Bridge heading to Englewood Beach is an abandoned sailboat. Then there’s another and another in Chadwick Cove. We call it ‘Shipwreck Cove’ because some of those boats have been there for years.”
Bigness is a volunteer member of the Charlotte County Marine Advisory Committee. At every meeting, Bigness asks for an update on the now 24 derelict boats in Charlotte County. Last month there were 18. Almost half of the boats listed are abandoned in Englewood, and others are in Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River between Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda.
Boats on the county’s long list are being investigated by either Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office or Charlotte County.
Charlotte County officials have said they rely on the state to get rid of the boats.
At issue for Charlotte County officials is a 2017 change in the derelict boat law. A Florida boat owner’s vessel was removed by FWC without giving him a legal way to get back his boat before it was destroyed. The man sued and won. Therefore, the state had to buy him a new boat — which was worth considerably more than the man’s derelict boat.
Following the lawsuit, FWC rewrote the derelict boat removal rules to include offering an administrative hearing for boat owners who want to get their boat back.
However, Specialist Roger DeBruler, who oversees the derelict boat program in Charlotte County, said he doesn’t know who is supposed to hold the hearing.
“I don’t know the process of putting together an administrative hearing,” DeBruler recently told the Sun. “Does the county do it? Does the court do it? Does the sheriff’s office do it? The law is unclear.”
DeBruler said there’s no mechanism in place to hold an administrative hearing in Charlotte County.
Bigness is disappointed the county isn’t using all of its resources to remove derelict boats. Earlier this year, FWC offered a $1 million grant for statewide boat removal. Charlotte County did not apply.
In 2017, Longboat Key was one of more than two-dozen municipalities to receive a grant. Applicants must demonstrate proof that “due process” was provided for each vessel’s owner. At a minimum, it includes an opportunity for the vessel owner to challenge the derelict vessel determination, either in criminal court or in an administrative hearing.
“The county has an attorney who might be able to get answers about criminal court or administrative hearings,” Bigness said. “Maybe the county commissioners can get these answers.”
Bigness said as confusion and finger pointing continues, the situation is getting worse.
“My neighbor told me he saw an oil slick wash up near his dock,” Bigness said. “It’s likely caused by these derelict boats. They don’t have lights on them. They are dangerous to other boaters.”
Tommy Brock, chairman of the Charlotte County Beaches and Shores Advisory Committee, said he too wants more clarification on derelict boat guidelines.
Brock said he would like to invite Phil Horning, who heads the state’s Derelict Boat Program and the grant program, to one of the committee’s meetings. “We have been asking for answers for years. These boats need to be removed and the only way to do it is to get someone who knows to give us these answers. We keep hearing that the county’s hands are tied. Well, if Mr. Horning has answers, we would love to hear them.”
But, Bigness said its incumbent upon DeBruler, the sheriff or elected officials to find out how to get the boats out.
“For years, I’ve been asking about the derelict boats in Chadwick Cove,” he said. “Roger gives our board the same answers that the county’s hands are tied. I know the county has a penalty if your grass is too high.
“I know if a vehicle in a crash spills hazardous chemicals in the ground, there’s a mechanism to remove it,” he said. “So why isn’t it clear what to do with these boats that are leaking hazardous materials into our waters? I would think all government agencies would be interested in stopping this from happening.”