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Busted-up boat proves to be immovable object

NEW PORT RICHEY — Broken porch light? Got it. Warped garage door? Got that, too. Soggy free newspapers on the porch and broken Christmas ornaments on the living room floor? Yes and yes.

The home in the waterfront community of Gulf Harbors bears many of the standard hallmarks of a home in foreclosure. But add one more thing to this Shell Stream Boulevard house's list of neglect:

A sunken 38-foot yacht tied to a smashed-up dock.

The case of My Way, a Pacemaker boat with little hope of being revived, has shown just how hard it can be to get a broken-down vessel towed away when no one lays claim to it — and no government agency says it has the power or money to move it.

"I'm frustrated as all get-out," said Pasco Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, who lives in Gulf Harbors.

The house where the boat is docked belongs to Maureen Mowry, 69. Or did. In June, Deutsche Bank National Trust sued her and her husband, David, for defaulting on a $285,000 mortgage from 2007, court records show.

The bank's process server learned David had died in April 2007, according to records. And Maureen was gone by then, moving often enough that the process server could not find her.

Out back, My Way was on another legal track.

Nearly a year before the bank began foreclosing on Mowry's home, the Pasco Sheriff's Marine unit had sent a deputy to take a look at the sunken vessel behind her home. Deputy James Lawless found that the boat "constitutes a potential hazard to navigation and environmental pollution risk."

He put a boom around the boat to contain chemicals from spreading through the canal, he wrote in his incident report. The U.S. Coast Guard told him that it found no signs of a chemical leak.

But who owned the boat?

Mowry was not home that day. Deputies, in fact, could not catch up with her at all during the investigation.

But they talked to her sons. One son, Clark Mowry, who runs a boat salvaging company, told investigators that his deceased father had owned the boat.

He said the family even tried to move the boat but ran into problems lifting the vessel out of the water because of its weight, according to the report.

Another son, Mitchel Mowry, drove a truck bearing a decal of a boat emblazoned with the words "MY WAY" but denied any connection. He told authorities that his family's lawyer told him his mother did not have to remove the boat.

The vessel's documentation numbers were of no use, either. The U.S. Coast Guard told deputies that the number no longer appeared in their records, as the boat had not been registered in years.

But the Sheriff's Office figured it had enough evidence to show that Mowry was responsible for the boat and forwarded the case to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

In October 2009, prosecutors charged Maureen Mowry with a misdemeanor for leaving a derelict vessel in public waters.

Cpl. Michael La Roche of the Pasco Sheriff's Office, who had investigated a previous complaint about the boat in 2008, didn't care about fining Mowry; he wanted the court to force her to move the boat, according to sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin.

Her attorney, Michael Butash, said he pointed out to prosecutors and the court, however, that no one could say for certain that Mowry owned the boat. What if, he said, her husband gave it to someone else before his death?

"There really was no link to her and the boat," Butash said in an interview. "The only way they could link it to her was it was her house."

As part of a plea agreement, Mowry pleaded no contest to the charge in March of this year, and the court withheld a finding of guilt. She was ordered to pay nearly $250 in court costs.

Left unresolved by the court: who would move the boat.

Prosecutors told La Roche that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission could remove the boat and assess the costs against Mowry in civil court. The criminal case was closed.

Fish and Wildlife can remove derelict vessels at state expense if owners can't be identified.

But the agency prioritizes vessels that are potential hazards to navigation, spokesman Gary Morse said. Docked boats typically do not meet that standard.

And there's a bigger problem, he said: Funding for the derelict vessel program is tight.

In the current year, the Legislature appropriated $75,000 to the entire Florida Boating Improvement fund, which covers not only derelict vessels but also other marine projects, agency spokeswoman Katie Purcell said.

Just two years ago, the Legislature set aside $1.55 million for the derelict vessel removal program.

As of September, nearly 150 derelict vessels were awaiting removal. Authorities were trying to determine if 110 more would be considered for removal.

It's unclear how much it would cost to move My Way, but the costs of moving derelict vessels can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size, the location and other factors.

"There's really no funds available," Morse said.

At a recent County Commission meeting, County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder was asked if the county could pay for the boat's removal and assess a lien against the owner. Steinsnyder said the county had few options of its own unless the owner of the boat could be identified and served with a notice.

"I'm afraid there's not much good news," he said.

Mowry could not be reached for comment. Court records show a number of recent financial claims against her, including a $493 code enforcement lien filed by Pasco County in March 2010. County officials are trying to recover the costs of removing debris from the yard of the Gulf Harbors home.

Her son Mitchel said in a brief phone interview that the outcome of the court case proved she does not own the boat.

Then who did and how did it get behind her home? "At this time, I know nothing," he said. "I don't want to burden her with these petty little issues."

But the issues are serious to neighbors. Frank Bifulco, president of the Gulf Harbors Civic Association, said residents are concerned the boat could break loose from the dock and end up in the middle of the canal, putting others in danger.

"The neighbors are raising all kinds of Cain," he said, "and there's nothing we can do about it."

He said he held out hope for one thing: Maybe the bank foreclosing on the home will pay for My Way to be towed away.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Busted-up boat proves to be immovable object 11/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 27, 2010 1:15pm]
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