- Associated Press - Sunday, February 18, 2018

BOLIVIA, N.C. (AP) - Bobbing listlessly in a small harbor near Dutchman Creek Park in Southport, a large boat drifted aimlessly in the wind before jerking to a halt, caught by its anchor. Mere feet from the boat, only the mast of another was visible above the water.

As Southport resident Autumn Bell watched her children play at the park, she described the harbor - filled with about 10 abandoned boats - as a “boat graveyard” and an “eyesore.” Some of the boats float eerily above the water, while others have sunk beneath the surface.

“I say it’s where boats come to die,” Bell said. “They’re all abandoned and it’s an eyesore and I know it can’t be good for the environment.”

In March 2017, Brunswick County Commissioners adopted an abandoned boat ordinance to address the issue of people anchoring and leaving their boats in public waterways. Though the harbor at Dutchman Creek Park off Fish Factory Road is one of the places where abandoned boats are most visible, Capt. Tommy Tolley with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office said it’s a widespread issue - particularly in the Oak Island and Southport areas.

The sheriff’s office has been enforcing the ordinance for a year, posting warnings on boats believed to be abandoned and working to track down the owners in an effort to get the boats removed.

Now, the sheriff’s office has run into the issue of funding when it comes to removing the abandoned boats - an issue Brunswick County Commissioners will be faced with in the upcoming 2018-19 budget process.

“I just don’t understand why it would be so hard to bring someone down here to tow them somewhere,” Bell said.

Abandoned boats issue

The N.C. General Assembly passed legislation in 2015 giving coastal counties the authority to pass an ordinance prohibiting abandoned boats, legislation Brunswick County Commissioner Pat Sykes was instrumental in pushing for after she grew concerned about the growing number of abandoned boats in Brunswick waterways. For example, a sunken, abandoned shrimp trawler in Holden Beach has drawn particular concern from commissioners for years and prompted creation of the ordinance.

Capt. Mose Highsmith, sheriff’s office attorney, spent two years crafting the county’s abandoned boat ordinance - something neither Pender nor New Hanover counties have.

Lt. Jerry Brewer with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said the county hasn’t had any issues with abandoned boats. If a boat is a hazard and blocking a “navigable channel,” Brewer said the county is quick to notify the Coast Guard, which will move the boat.

While the Coast Guard also addresses the issue of boats causing hazardous situations in navigable waters in Brunswick County, the marine agency doesn’t tackle abandoned boats that aren’t creating a navigation hazard, Highsmith said, leaving the problem to the county to solve.

Though New Hanover County doesn’t have an abandoned boats ordinance, the town of Wrightsville Beach adopted an ordinance years ago addressing the anchoring of vessels within the town’s jurisdiction. Town Manager Tim Owens said boats are not allowed to be anchored within the zoning jurisdiction of the town for more than 30 days in any 180 day period.

Owens said the Wrightsville Beach Police Department monitors boats moored in the town’s jurisdiction and once the “clock starts ticking” on the 30 day window, officers will “sticker” the boat and make contact with the owners.

“We have a lot of people that sort of push the time limit when it comes to mooring, but for the most part they’re here to enjoy themselves … and typically they’ll move out of the waters that are covered,” he said.

Dealing with anchored and moored boats is “complicated,” Owens said, and the town does struggle to keep up with monitoring boats coming in and out and keeping track of how long they’ve been in the vicinity.

Occasionally, the town has dealt with a boat being abandoned or sinking, but has been “fortunate enough” to track down the owners who “did the right thing,” Owens said.

Tolley said the sheriff’s office marine patrol unit travels the waterways and identifies potentially abandoned and derelict vessels. A boat that has been moored for longer than 10 days is tagged with a warning slip.

“We have multiple layers of efforts to get the boat removed by the owners,” Tolley said.

He said the warning slips have been successful in educating owners of boats that are not abandoned as to the law regarding mooring and anchoring their boats in Brunswick County waters.

Tolley said Dutchman Creek Park used to be home to about 20 vessels. Due to the warning system, owners of about half the boats in the harbor removed them at their own cost.

In their efforts to track down an owner, if sheriff’s office deputies are able to locate a registration number for the boat, certified letters are sent to the owners asking them to remove the boat. For a lot of the abandoned boats, Tolley said, the sheriff’s office often runs into not being able to locate the owner, or finding an owner who does not have the financial means to remove the boat.

Tagging for removal

County Attorney Bob Shaver presented the perplexing issue to commissioners in December.

“I feel like we go above and beyond in trying to make contact with owners or providing access for them to make contact and to know what’s going on with the vessel and what our intentions are,” Tolley said.

Now, Tolley said the boats the sheriff’s office is dealing with have moved on to the “next process,” where the boat is tagged with an orange slip that notifies the owner the sheriff’s office is going to “start the process of legally taking ownership and taking responsibility for the boat.”

While the ordinance is helpful in the sense of preventing more boats from being abandoned in the county, Tolley said the sheriff’s office has no funding to remove boats that are already abandoned, which can be costly, ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 on some vessels.

The abandoned Holden Beach shrimp trawler, one of the boats that prompted the ordinance, could cost about $50,000 to remove. Removing boats before they sink is less costly, Tolley said.

Tolley said there are currently 20 vessels in the county that have been tagged and are at the point where the sheriff’s office is waiting on the county’s direction as to what to do with the abandoned boats.

“We’ve sent that information to the county for the guidance on how to move forward on that,” he said.

Next steps

Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy said county staff is preparing information related to the abandoned boats issue to present to commissioners during their goal-setting retreat Feb. 19.

Some of the information that will be presented to commissioners is cost of towing abandoned boats and possibly refining the ordinance or procedures related to public safety and what identifies as a public safety risk, Hardy said.

Sykes said adopting and enforcing the ordinance has been a “learning process,” focusing more on the future and preventing more abandoned boats from accumulating in county waters than addressing boats that have been abandoned for years.

“But it doesn’t mean we can’t amend the policy and it doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” she said.

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Information from: The StarNews, http://starnewsonline.com


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