GULFPORT — Is a mooring field finally in the city's future?
After eight years of contentious debate, line items in the city's budget and polarized council discussion, plans appear to be in place to construct the first long-term authorized anchor site in Boca Ciega Bay.
Getting this far has been a rough sail.
The city first proposed the idea of a mooring field in 2005 to deal with an increasing number of derelict and abandoned boats in the waters just off the city's beach. The council denied the staff's request. In 2008, the city staff made another attempt. But many residents objected, thinking it was an overreaction to the derelict vessel issue and an unnecessary expense when the city was facing budget constraints. There was also talk that a mooring field might increase the inventory of derelict boats in the bay, a claim disputed by Denis Frain, the city's harbormaster.
"The people who anchor at mooring fields are serious, responsible boaters," he said. "Every week I get calls from sailors looking to anchor offshore in Gulfport. We've been talking about the mooring field for so long, many people assume we already have one.
"It was a good idea in 2005; it's an even better idea now, especially with the new Bayway Bridge providing boaters free access to the bay," he said.
Eight years ago, that good idea was a 100-buoy mooring field funded by the city. Today that number is 25, with most of the funding coming from outside sources. Further, the field will be limited to sailboats.
City Manager Jim O'Reilly said Gulfport will apply for two grants. One, under the Florida Environmental Protection Act, would cover 75 percent of the cost of construction; the other, under the Clean Vessels Act, would pay 75 percent of the city's cost to purchase a pump-out boat, a state requirement estimated to cost $100,000. All necessary permits are in place, and the city has received approval from the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
"What we have now, essentially, is a de facto mooring field," Frain said. "The only difference is, we have no jurisdiction over the vessels, nor any rights to demand owners maintain their boats, empty their pumps, restrict their anchorage or move them from city waters.
"A mooring field gives us that control," he said. "Anchoring at a mooring field is a privilege, not a right. If you anchor here, you have to pump here."
Once the field is built, boats currently in the bay that do not choose the transient dock or anchor within the parameters of the mooring field will have to move farther out in the bay.
"The problem won't go away," Frain said, "but it will cease to be our problem."
Reducing the number of mooring balls to 25 and defraying some of the costs of construction have made the project more palatable for many current council members, including Mayor Sam Henderson.
"When the city's economy was in a downturn, I just couldn't justify the expense," he said. "Now, we have a waterfront plan that supports the addition of a mooring field."
The council has gone on record expressing support for spending $800,000 to expand the ship store, add laundry and shower facilities, and create a social area with tables and grills. The new amenities are designed to make Gulfport's Municipal Marina more attractive to boaters who want to anchor offshore.
Ward 3 council member Jennifer Salmon has gone from "rabidly against, to coming around" after she saw firsthand the boats anchored offshore. "I went from a being a person shouting 'no' to being in support of the project. Look at the ones that are out there now," she said. "It's not that scary a project, and not as expensive as some might think."
Ward 2 council member Christine Brown, who comes from a family of boaters, recognizes the need for regulating the boats off Gulfport Beach, especially those that have been there a year and "never get flushed."
"The mooring field is not designed to get rid of those boats in the bay. It's to provide a safe place for people to park their boats and, if they want to, come ashore and visit (and spend in) Gulfport.
"The boating community is a vibrant community," she said. "Boaters love to go places. Given the opportunity, they will visit our city, stay for a time, and enjoy all of what Gulfport has to offer."
Dan Liedtke, representative from Ward 1 and vice mayor, said that not one boater has come to him and said he was willing to pay to anchor to a Gulfport mooring ball.
"Maybe if we build it they will come. But until the … marina secures what it needs to be competitive and we are once again on a waiting list for slips, I consider it frivolous to support any expenditure toward any aspect of a mooring field in Gulfport's waters on Boca Ciega Bay."
Ward 4 council member Michael Fridovich hasn't yet weighed in, choosing to wait until the council begins budget talks. "I'm still not sure we aren't getting a little ahead of ourselves, that we're making plans for a mooring field before we have all the amenities in place."
At least one Gulfport resident has gone on record in support of the mooring field. Veteran sailor Pat Dunham, a Gulfport resident for 38 years who lives down the street from the marina, has no doubt the city will benefit from boaters anchoring in a safe place and exploring the area.
"There is a regular stream of folks who travel south from up north and stop at various beach communities along the way. Once they know Gulfport has the facilities and the mooring capabilities they need, they'll visit, and they'll spend money."
Diane Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.