CLEARWATER - It has been only four months since a Minimum Wake Zone has been in force at the north end of Mandalay Channel. Originally approved by the Clearwater City Council in February of 2005, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave the final OK in August.
The extension of the minimum wake zone was sought by waterfront residents who complained of the safety hazard caused by large wakes generated by boats accelerating and decelerating in the area.
But Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who in his youth water-skied in Mandalay Channel, has called for relaxing the restriction on boat operation in what he called one of the few bodies of water in Clearwater suitable for skiing.
During discussion at the January 17th Council Work Session, Hamilton said, "When we put in the minimum wake zone, that was done with the understanding that we could not differentiate by vessel size. We have since been informed that it is perfectly allowable to differentiate wake zones based on the size of the boats that are traversing the water."
According to Bill Morris, Clearwater's Harbor Master, both Broward and Martin Counties have enacted wake zones that are selective by boat size.
Hamilton then recalled the arguments made last year by those who supported extending the wake zone; "To a person, the comment was made 'our concern is not with the recreational boater; it's the large craft that are creating the large wakes'," he said.
Hamilton called for allowing small vessels, those under 25 feet, to use the north end of Mandalay Channel without restriction, while continuing to impose a minimum wake limitation on larger vessels.
Council Member Carlen Petersen, who supported the original wake zone ordinance, questioned the enforcement of a selective wake zone; "Is it conceivable to enforce a 24 foot boat rule?" Morris responded, "The hard part is having the enforcement vessel there." The City has no marine patrol vessels, and the few operated by the County Sheriff are spread thin, according to Morris. He added, "It would be very difficult to educate the public on this one."
Petersen said, "I have a hard time passing any kind of ordinance, legislation, regulation that's unenforceable." Hamilton responded, "It's not unenforceable, it's just a matter of how much enforcement can we afford. I think we should have a marine enforcement unit on our local Police Department, but funding that is something that's not going to happen overnight."
Enforcement and education are also the concerns of Frank Dame, President of the Island Estates Civic Association and a member of Clearwater's Marine Advisory Board. In a letter to the City Council and City Manager, Dame worried that the operators of large vessels who observe small vessels at speed in the area "will surely think that they have the same rights and will continue at a high rate of speed creating the wakes that were part of the issue to begin with." Click here to read Dame's letter in its entirety.
Dame is also concerned that the growing number of rental Jet Ski's in the Clearwater Municipal Marina will add to the congestion and safety issues in the channel. He pointed out in his letter that many of these vessels can exceed 60 MPH; "To an inexperienced operator in an emergency situation, this can have a grave effect and outcome," he wrote.
The wake zone issue will be discussed during tonight's Council meeting. Staff will be presenting an outline of a revised wake zone ordinance for Council comment and direction.
The original minimum wake ordinance was passed by a vote of 3-2, Mayor Frank Hibbard and Council Members Jonson and Petersen in favor, and Council Members Doran and Hamilton opposed. Hibbard appears to be the swing vote on the new proposal; he said, "I don't know that I'm ready to make a decision - I'm leaning more and more towards allowing it."
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