Citizens speak up about vessels on Weeki Wachee River

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Citizens speak up about vessels on Weeki Wachee River

August 22, 2017 - 10:14
On the Weeki Wachee River, photo by Robert Stein

The County Commission chamber was nearly full at the August 8, 2017 meeting with the majority of attendees present to discuss the boat and kayak traffic on the Weeki Wachee River.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes opened the discussion by saying “I remember the river when there was nobody on it.”

County Attorney Garth Coller cited important legal points to guide the discussion, and to answer commonly-asked questions as to why the county doesn’t regulate specific activities. Mr. Coller stated, “Any portion of the river, essentially ‘waters of navigation’ is a Federal pre-emption, we have no jurisdiction. When it comes to the shoreline, the launching of boats, we have some limited ability to regulate, based on our current, existing zoning… if the parcel from which a boat is being launched is properly zoned for that type of activity, they are lawful, and cannot be stopped.”

County Administrator Len Sossamon then posed the question, “Why can’t the board (of County Commissioners), if the citizens request, rezone businesses that are allowing kayak and canoe launches?”

Mr. Coller answered, “You can do it, but it’s incredibly expensive. It’s called “a downzoning and a taking.” The United States Constitution prohibits taking property without due process, and the expensive part comes from compensation to the business owners. The question then becomes “how much does the county wish to spend to resolve the issue.”

Discussion among the commissioners began with Commissioner John Allocco stating concerns that “we have an unequal playing field” when it comes to renting and launching kayaks and such. Most businesses are complying with requirements, in that they have parking, trash and restroom facilities, and then there are businesses that are not meeting such requirements, that are still renting vessels and adding to the traffic on the river. Attorney Coller said that if such a business was in violation of requirements, then Code Enforcement would be involved and the offending business prosecuted.

Commissioner Steve Champion recalled recent discussions of the need for more recreational facilities in the county. “It’s getting overcrowded because there is no where else to go.” Mr. Champion continued, “If you open up other recreational opportunities, they’re not all going to go to the river. I doubt anyone enjoys being bumper-to-bumper.”
Nearby kayak launches are also available at Bayport / Jenkin’s Creek and Linda Pedersen Park. Commissioner Jeff Holcomb mentioned these venues, and posed the question whether parking could be expanded to attract more paddlers, which would reduce the traffic on the Weeki Wachee. Mr. Sossamon mentioned other future possibilities, such as the Weeki Wachee Preserve and another recreational area planned near Shoal Line Boulevard.

Mr. Dukes addressed the homeowners, “The sad part is, you bought that house on the river because it’s so beautiful. You’re never going to be able to stop the attraction of a beautiful blue river, and people wanting to use it.” He mentioned once again the limitations on the jurisdiction of the local and state governments over a navigable waterway.

“I don’t know if there is an answer,” Dukes said.

Commissioner Allocco referred to the Weeki Wachee Preserve (for which there are plans pending to conceptualize a recreational area). He mentioned that the state could use that area and build an exit point halfway down the Weeki Wachee, reducing traffic in the last half of the river. Novice kayakers may also welcome a mid-way stopping point rather than having no choice but to finish the full five-mile trip, which typically begins at Weeki Wachee Springs.

Roy Johnson, a resident of Weeki Wachee Gardens brought up the fact that prior boards have placed regulations on the river and enacted them. Mr. Johnson reviewed ordinances enacted in 1979, prohibiting large boats from entering the head of the river, or the Weeki Wachee Spring, and consumption of alcohol on the river. He also agreed with the half-way exit point, saying “A lot of people don’t know if they’ve traveled three miles or five miles, they’ve been on it for two hours, they’re just ready to get off.”

By amplitude of applause, the early exit strategy seems to have popular resident support.

Another resident, Paul Vermeulen addressed the local ordinance question, reciting from published statutes that the Board of County Commissioners has “an obligation and responsibility to its residents … to maintain a high standard of public safety on the Weeki Wachee waters.”

Mr. Vermeulen went on to say, “Because of the number of kayak rental companies the county has allowed to open without any regulation … the number of kayaks being launched daily from not only the state park, but from other locations ... Rick’s Garage and the Riverside Restaurant, public safety is at risk.”

Fritz Musselman spoke to the board about the potential for a carrying capacity study. He acknowledged that such a study could limit a riverside landowner’s use of the river. Mr. Musselman said, “What I’m trying to point to is the commercial uses.” The carrying capacity study is actually a project listed on the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) plan.

“I think you should do everything in your power, whether you have the jurisdiction or not to encourage (Department of Environmental Protection - DEP and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission - FWC) to do what they’re supposed to do.”

Several other residents spoke on the issue, all in agreement to address overcrowding, adding other possible solutions such as user fees and boater education for vessel use and environmental aspects, such as minimizing bank erosion.

County Attorney Garth Coller and Assistant Jon Jouben discussed the statutes controlling the county’s legislation, and Mr. Jouben stated that the crux of the matter, “Regulating directly the volume of traffic on the river, that’s exclusively and pre-empted to the state.”

The commission will consider all possible solutions discussed, and revisit the issue again at the August 29th BOCC meeting.