CLEARWATER - The Clearwater City Council appears to be ready to modify a wake zone they put in place for Mandalay Channel just last year.
Bill Morris, Clearwater's Director of Marine and Aviation, presented a draft ordinance that would continue to establish a minimum wake zone for boats greater than 25 feet in length in the northern area of Mandalay Channel, but would excuse boats 25 feet and smaller from that restriction.
The 2005 extension of the minimum wake zone had been sought by waterfront residents who complained of the safety hazard caused by large wakes generated by boats accelerating and decelerating in the area.
Council member Hoyt Hamilton and a number of recreational boaters, seeking to allow water skiing in the area, requested the easing of the minimum wake restriction for smaller boats. Clearwater's Marine Advisory Board also supports eliminating the minimum wake restriction for smaller vessels.
During Monday's Council work session, Hamilton dismissed safety concerns with the channel, claiming that the City has no records of injuries or accidents in the area. Saying, "I can't legislate common sense," Hamilton implied that that safety is the responsibility of boat operators and passengers, and that it is unreasonable for the City to eliminate all risk.
Council member Carlen Petersen disagreed; "I still think it's a safety issue," she said. Petersen was also concerned that the City has no means to enforce the selective wake zone. "I just think we're better off erring on the side of caution on this one," she said.
Council member Bill Jonson echoed Petersen's concerns. Referring to testimony from the public during last year's hearing on creating the wake zone, he said, "I thought they made a good argument that there was a potential for danger there." Recognizing that the presence of small vessels at speed in the area could confuse operators of larger vessels, Jonson asked, "How do you post this? How do you communicate this so that boaters know thatů" His question was interrupted by Hamilton, who said, "Like I said before, you post it however it's necessary to post."
With Council member John Doran supporting Hamilton's position, Mayor Frank Hibbard was the swing vote in determining whether to proceed with the wake zone relaxation. "I am willing to go forward and look at an amendment," he said.
Enforcement of the City's marine regulations is the responsibility of the Pinellas County Sheriff. Sgt. Dwayne Somers, who runs the Sheriff's Marine Patrol Unit, said Clearwater's proposed wake zone "can't be enforced unless it's properly marked." Although he didn't foresee a problem with an officer distinguishing between boats of different lengths, Somers recognized that boat operators could be confused; "If a 26-foot boat operator sees three small boats operating at speed, then he'll think that he can too," he said.
A public hearing on the Mandalay Wake zone is scheduled for the March 16th City Council meeting, when the proposed ordinance will be presented for its first reading and voted on by the Council.
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