BY JACK SHORT – A proposed minimum-wake zone expansion that began as an effort by a small group of homeowners has passed its first major hurdle.
The Charlotte County Marine Advisory Committee heard presentations over the last two months from the public representing homeowners in Boca Grande North and in houses along Gulf Shores Drive, as well as members of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department, and have recommended an expansion of the minimum wake zone in place near the southernmost of the three bridges leading onto Gasparilla.
According to Jason Ouimet, traffic engineering superintendent for Charlotte County, the minimum wake zone proposed by the MAC is actually a combination of several proposals brought by various groups.
The current minimum wake zone runs from the west side of the southernmost bridge approximately 250 meters towards the pass and approximately 50 meters east of that same bridge.
The MAC’s proposal will include that zone, but expand it westward to the northernmost tip of Gasparilla Island and include water between the causeway and the trestles from a point southwest of Gulf Shores Drive to the north end of the middle bridge.
The area around Boca Grande North was added at the behest of residents in that development, and the area underneath the middle bridge was added at the recommendation of Sgt. Lytle of the CCSD, according to Ouimet, who said Lytle worried that boats speeding through that area would pose a threat to boaters and swimmers that congregate on the shoal east of the middle bridge.
The length of the zone, from north to south, is approximately 1,300 meters.
Ouimet said the area under the second bridge, because the clearance underneath it more than 24 feet, has no fender system, and has a piling span of more than 100 feet, had to be included as an expansion of any minimum wake zone to the south because it would not otherwise meet Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission standards.
A minimum wake zone requires that boaters reduce speed to the absolute minimum required to navigate safely.
Ouimet said the effort was motivated by the need for swimmer and boater safety as well as wildlife protection.
Patrick Bell, who owns a home on the north shore of Gasparilla Island near the south bridge, said he and approximately a half-dozen homeowners met with commissioner Bill Truex, chair of the Charlotte County Board of Commissioners, about their concerns approximately a year ago.
They initially asked for more enforcement of the existing minimum wake zone, which the county provided, but not for long.
Palmer and Linda Long had said in an interview with the Beacon in 2013 that the FWC told them there wasn’t sufficient documentation of manatees killed by boat strikes in that area to warrant an expansion of the minimum wake zone.
Representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Marine Research Institute have noted in past, interviews (unrelated to the proposed expansion) that it is difficult to know where many manatee mortalities take place because they often keep moving after a strike but before being discovered or dying.
The Longs and Bell said they observed manatees using the channel frequently.
Bell said he observes boats “screaming” through the channel that runs along the north shore of Gasparilla where he lives, and fears for the safety of kayakers, swimmers, and paddle boarders that use the water.
“People take their life in their hands,” he said. “I’ve seen kayaks overturned (by wake) and people knocked off of boards … ”
He added that the wake is a nuisance to those with docks and boats in that area.
Bell said the problem has worsened since the new south bridge was completed in 2013 with higher clearances that seemed to encourage faster traffic.
Then, a few months ago, said Bell, the MAC notified them that comments were being solicited on the matter.
According to the minutes of the MAC’s May 14 meeting, some present spoke against the proposed measure. A man noted therein as Cpt. Blago said that “there was no problem there,” and that the FWC agreed with him, and a Mr. Hoffman said, “he was not in favor of slow speeds for private docks, because people would have to be in the middle of the ocean to get on plane again.”
Bell said that most arguments against the minimum wake zone came from fishing clubs.
Charlotte County’s legal department is drafting the proposal. When complete, it will be submitted to FWC for preliminary approval, then to the Charlotte County Board of Commissioners, and then again to the FWC for final approval, Ouimet said. If it is approved, it will require permits from other agencies including the Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Coast Guard. He estimated that final legislation could take six months to a year before being enacted.
Ouimet said he was not aware of any involvement by the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, which declined at their recent board meeting to agree to post any signs related to a minimum wake zone on their bridges, saying they didn’t want to compromise the structural integrity of the pilings by drilling anchors into them, and that they didn’t want to begin a “slippery slope,” by approving the request, brought before the board by Bell.
GIBA Executive Director Kathy Verrico said that she could not recall when the authority was last asked to post a sign on one of its bridges that would be visible from the water.
Bell said he was disappointed, but that “they chose not to do that and it’s their right.”
He said that additional signs will be put in place in the water if the measure is approved. There are signs posted near the shoreline on which Boca Grande North sits, but that they are illegal and that most boaters know that and don’t pay them any heed.