Private marinas disappearing but public efforts could ease problem, says UF researcher
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Along the nation’s coastlines, marinas are being replaced by high-priced residential and commercial developments, a trend that leaves increasing numbers of boat owners high and dry, unable to access marine waters.
But a University of Florida researcher says communities can help keep boaters – and local economies – afloat by planning for and operating public ramps, docks and waterways more efficiently.
“Access to marine waters is a finite resource, because there’s only so much coastline,” said Robert Swett, an assistant professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “In Florida, the number of registered boats has increased at a faster rate than the number of people, so it’s in everybody’s interest that we maximize the use of our public boating facilities.”
Nearly 1 million boats are registered in Florida, and visitors bring another 400,000 vessels to the state each year, said Swett, who is also a specialist with Florida Sea Grant, a state and federal partnership dedicated to creating a sustainable coastal economy and environment. From 1980 to 2000, recreational boat registrations in Florida increased 82 percent, while the population increased 64 percent.
In Florida and other coastal states, developers pay top dollar for oceanfront property to build so-called dockominiums, luxury condominiums with private docking facilities, he said. When marina owners sell their operations, customers may not have the option to stay on as condo owners.
“Most boat owners are not rich,” Swett said. “They’re working people, and there’s only so much they can spend to put their boats on the water.”
Displaced customers may have three options – seek affordable facilities in the same community, go boating in other communities or stay home, he said.
“From the standpoint of the local economy, the best option often is to have boaters keep coming back to the same area,” Swett said. “Low-cost public ramps and docks are great incentives, but they have to meet boaters’ needs and it’s not always obvious what those needs are.”
Accommodating large numbers of boaters at public facilities requires careful planning, using strategies pioneered by growth management professionals such as traffic engineers, he said.
“Nobody widens a road on impulse – you study traffic flow, analyze the data and weigh your options,” Swett said. “The same idea applies to waterways. Before we commit public funds to maintain or upgrade infrastructure we need to be sure the project will accomplish what we want.”
Swett and Florida Sea Grant colleague Charles Sidman spend much of their time investigating boat traffic patterns and boaters’ activities. The two provide expertise to numerous local governments and agencies, such as the West Coast Inland Navigation District, which comprises Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties in Southwest Florida, Swett said.
One recent project involved detailed studies of heavily used canal systems and waterways in Manatee, Sarasota and Lee Counties, to determine where dredging was needed and how it could be accomplished with minimal environmental impact, he said. By focusing on multiple sites simultaneously, the study cut the cost of obtaining dredging permits for each site.
“Coordinated efforts can really make a difference,” Swett said. “It’s encouraging that state legislators are also taking an interest in marine access, because it may result in greater funding and a uniform approach to some administrative issues.”
Florida recently began a comprehensive assessment and economic study of public launching and mooring facilities on marine waters, he said. When completed in about 18 months, the study will help policymakers and coastal communities predict future demand and make plans to supply appropriate facilities.
Loss of marine access is becoming an issue in coastal communities around the nation, said James Frye, who directs the marinas and boating access department of the National Marine Manufacturers Association in Chicago.
“Both small and large marinas are giving way to residential development as waterfront property values have soared and it makes better financial sense to sell out to a developer than to struggle to maintain a marina business,” he said. “Without access points like marinas and boat ramps, America won’t be able to get out on the water to recreate.”
Florida has 1,197 miles of coastline and an estimated 2,100 marinas, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Statewide, there are almost 8,000 boat ramps on both salt and fresh water, about 1,300 of them publicly operated.