Miami-Dade County

On the Miami River, boats are abandoned and fall into disrepair. What can be done?

Boat gets removed from Miami River

A derelict boat was removed from the Curtis Park Boat Ramp after blocking the ramp at the Miami River in Miami, Florida, on July 9, 2019.
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A derelict boat was removed from the Curtis Park Boat Ramp after blocking the ramp at the Miami River in Miami, Florida, on July 9, 2019.

“The boat has begun to sink,” Miami River resident Shawn Beightol told city officials in an email. “Just like they always do.”

Outside Beightol’s window on Northwest River Drive was a half-submerged cabin cruiser held up against the seawall by a few strained ropes. The boat, whose bow was no longer visible beneath the murky water, had been there for days, and no one had come to claim it. By the time Beightol reached out to the Miami City Commission and law enforcement, thieves — he calls them pirates — had already come and begun stripping the boat for parts.

Derelict vessels, or abandoned boats that have begun to fall into disrepair, have been part of a yearlong push by Beightol and other local residents to bring what he calls “law and order” to the Miami River. Right now, there are three derelict boats on the 5.5-mile stretch of waterway, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, though more may be on the river that have not been reported. The county Department of Environmental Resources Management estimates that there are between 12 and 15 derelict boats on waterways throughout Miami-Dade County.

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When owners leave their boats in the Miami River, they become a detriment to other boaters and wildlife, local residents say. Shawn Beightol

The Miami River — the stretch of water where the city was founded — has long been a working waterway on which cargo ships chug loads destined for Haiti or the Bahamas. Over the years, it has gone from a dumping ground for raw sewage to coveted real estate. But as developers seek to build residential and office complexes, restaurants and other projects along the shoreline, those who already live in the river district are pushing the city to crack down on boaters and those who abandon boats there.

When Beightol’s email made its way to the FWC, Captain Alberto Maza said on July 2: “We are on it.”

But boats may be left in the river for days before someone like Maza initiates the derelict vessel process. Even then, officers can’t remove abandoned vessels immediately. Unless the boat is creating an immediate hazard, the registered owner has between 21 and 45 days — depending on which agency flagged it — to remove it or prove it isn’t a hazard after the law enforcement officer posts a yellow notice on the boat designating it derelict. The officer must also make an effort to mail the owner a notice that their boat is derelict.

While he waited, Beightol took photos of the abandoned boat, cataloging its journey to the bottom of the river, at which point it was finally removed. That was July 17.

’No one’s responsibility’

That boat and others are left behind often because they are defective or their owners just can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance. But using the river as a junkyard can wreak havoc on the environment — and other boats.

The holding tanks on an abandoned boat begin to leak sewage after a few days. Thieves climb onto the shaky vessel to strip it of parts they can sell. Objects left in the vessels, like life jackets, can fly off and pollute waters. Debris from the disintegrating boats floats in the river. And lodged against the sea wall, the boats block marine traffic, scrape other boats and endanger federally protected manatees.

When a car is abandoned, they take it somewhere safe,” said Emily Smith, 33, who lives on the Miami River. “They don’t leave it on the side of 836.”

It’s not that simple, said John Ricisak, DERM supervisor for Miami-Dade. There isn’t a designated place to put an abandoned boat once it’s removed from the river, like there is for cars, he said. So if DERM, which removes boats on request from the FWC and other law enforcement agencies, is asked to relocate, but not destroy a boat, the agency is in a bind.

When a derelict boat showed up right at the loading dock of the Curtis Park Boat Ramp — preventing other boats from using the dock — Beightol and Smith met in person with the Miami River Commission on July 9. The river commission, which calls itself a “clearinghouse” for the river, aims to bring together residents and governmental agencies on river-related issues.

The meeting took place at the Curtis Park Boat Ramp, where the boat Beightol initially complained about was still submerged against the seawall. The newer derelict had been flagged with a yellow notice that it would soon be removed.

An abandoned boat blocking the Curtis Park Boat Ramp was labeled with a notice for removal to allow its owner “due process” to claim the vessel. Julia Ingram

By the time they had finished talking an hour and a half later, the Miami River Commission’s chairman, Horacio Aguirre, had arranged for local law enforcement to remove the boat because it was blocking the loading dock. It’s unclear if the boat was destroyed.

But the Miami River Commission — a volunteer organization with only one paid staff member, managing director Brett Bibeau — doesn’t have the authority to clean up the river.

By state law, the FWC, as well as law enforcement officers employed by the city or state, all have the authority to designate a boat as derelict and relocate it accordingly. But the FWC typically handles only boats that are free floating, said Marc Ingellis, the FWC’s Miami-Dade derelict vessels officer. Boats that are tied off to public or private property are typically left to the city.

“Whoever owns that property, it becomes their headache,” Ingellis said.

Removing a derelict boat has a hefty price. Removal typically costs between $150 to $200 per foot, Ingellis said, meaning a 30-foot boat might cost $6,000 to remove. With court-ordered restitution, an owner will be fined the cost of removal.

Most of the time, though, they don’t pay up, Ingellis said. The Florida Division of Highway and Motor Vehicles will freeze their vehicle and boat licensing privileges in response, he said, but they’ll circumvent it by registering in a relative’s or friend’s name.

But funding is still available through state agencies. The FWC’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, which has a budget of nearly $700,000 for the 2018-19 fiscal year, reimburses local governments for removing boats. Florida counties can also draw up to $30,000 a year from the Florida Inland Navigation District’s grant program toward removing derelicts.

“Law enforcement and local governments have the right and the ability to deal with these things, they just don’t have a clear mandate or responsibility to do so,” said Spencer Crowley, a commissioner for the inland navigation district, said.

The residents have realized: “What happens when it’s everyone’s responsibility is that it becomes no one’s responsibility,” said Eleazar Melendez, 33, a resident of Northwest South River Drive.

Beightol and Smith considered the removal of the boat from the Curtis Park ramp a victory, but not a solution to what they perceive as a lack of attention to the river.

“It’s not this boat or that boat, it’s a culture,” Beightol said. “This is about a general lawlessness that’s allowed on the park, on the river, on the waterfront.”

‘Toothless,’ or a potential fix?

On July 25, Beightol pleaded his case before the Miami City Commission. He made sure he was on the agenda and that nearly 20 other river residents seeking change were there as well.

Before that meeting even began, amendments to the current ordinance on derelict vessels were underway. The city plans to reduce the number of days before law enforcement can remove an abandoned boat from 45 to 21, to match Florida state protocol. Right now, only the FWC, a state agency, follows the state protocol, which was changed in April. Changes to the ordinance may also increase “the city’s ability to respond” to derelict boats, a spokesman said. New state legislation, effective July 1, calls for a two-year study of the long-term impacts of the derelict vessels on local communities.

But residents don’t want “toothless resolutions,” Beightol said at the July 25 meeting. The lack of attention to derelict vessels — only one of the laundry list of river-related complaints Beightol came to the meeting with — is symptomatic of a shortage of Marine Patrol officers on the river, he and other residents say. Unmonitored, jet skiers and boaters who break speed limits create damaging wakes on the river, they say. Drunken, rowdy boaters, oil pollution and animal sacrifices that attract flies and maggots are also among the problems residents want fixed.

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Boaters who break the “no-wake” law on the Miami River by exceeding the speed limit can endanger wildlife and other boats, residents say. Shawn Beightol

Because of this, residents are demanding 24/7 marine patrols and stronger enforcement of existing laws. They want each agency to understand and carry out its responsibility on the river.

“What we have with derelict boats is a simple structural issue,” Melendez said at the meeting. “It says that the city ‘may’ move them, or relocate them. I think the city should be responsible for them.”

City Manager Emilio Gonzalez promised at the meeting to move existing resources to fund increased river patrols. Meanwhile, Bibeau is coordinating with the FWC and Gonzalez to station an FWC boat on the Miami River. According to an FWC spokesman, the agency has since been working to find a boat that is “suitable for law enforcement functions” and that is secure and accessible, but no plans have been finalized. Right now, Marine Patrol, not the FWC, monitors the river.

“I’m happy to be one player on this team taking direct actions to improve the Miami River, and I appreciate all that you do,” Bibeau wrote in an email to residents, reporting his progress.

Since the commission meeting, Marine Patrol schedules have been adjusted to increase patrolling at night, said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina, but have not increased the number of officers on the river. Right now, he said Marine Patrol has seven officers responsible for 26 miles of waterway across the city.

Though Colina said he takes the residents’ concerns very seriously, he is wary of pointing to 24/7 patrolling as a solution. More patrol officers would be needed to sustain continuous patrolling, and the city would need to decide if the river is the right place to put them.

For now, residents expressed a willingness to help the city move forward in cleaning up the river.

“I know [Marine Patrol’s] job is tough, resources stretched, and that the court system can make enforcement consequences seemingly ineffective,” Beightol told the Herald. “But we need them, they have our support, and they do make a difference by being out there.”

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Before they can remove a derelict vessel, officials must be notified that the boat presents a safety or navigation hazard. If it doesn’t provide an immediate threat, it might be floating in the Miami River for 45 days. Shawn Beightol