State, clients watch conversion of Whitley Bay
BY KATE BRENNAN
COCOA -- After thirty-five years, Cocoa's only public-access marina soon will go private.
Whitley Bay marina in Cocoa has been sold to a private entity that plans to create an exclusive club of members, who would be allowed to use the boat slips for a one-time fee in the tens of thousands of dollars. Image by Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY
The Whitley Bay Marina, with a total of 117 wet slips, was sold to a Naples-based developer in late September. It's been renamed the Whitley Bay Yacht Club, and plans to convert it into a members-only organization are under way.
The result could drastically reduce -- possibly even eliminate -- public access to the marina.
It's part of a statewide trend, privatizing previously public marinas, and slapping five- and six-figure price tags on boat slips that once went for a few hundred dollars a month. The outcome is a reduced number of boat slips available to average boaters as they are priced out of the wet-slip marina market.
"It (privatization) seems to be something that is on the rise. There certainly appears to be some real revenue benefits for the marine owners," said Dave Herbster, program director for the state Department of Environmental Protection's submerged lands and environmental resource program.
Steven Webster, vice president for Citizens for Florida's Waterways, said public marina owners are being forced to sell to developers because strict environmental regulations make it difficult for them to expand or improve their facilities.
"The privatization and elimination of public-water access is a true crisis in Florida," he said. "Floridians are being denied right to access waters that the constitution guarantees them. We think it's a significant problem that needs redress."
Various agencies such as the Boating Advisory Council to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Marine Industries Association of Florida are calling for legislation to preserve public access to marinas, even private marinas.
Florida controls almost everything under water in the state, big enough to put a boat on, such as river- and lake-bottoms. But according to DEP officials, current state regulations allow the complete elimination of public access to marinas.
Slips not for sale
On the boardwalk just below the second-story Whitley Bay Yacht Club sales office, a sign reads: "No less than 90 percent of the slips within the docking facility are available for rental by the public."
The public-access requirement is part of the marina's current lease granted by the state. But state officials say they are working with the new owners on revising it.
They're also trying to make sure that what the yacht club is selling doesn't violate state rules.
State rules prohibit the sales of slips. Whitley Bay representatives, though, say they're selling memberships, not slips.
"If they were selling the submerged land under the slip, if they were selling what had been deeded to them, that would be illegal," Herbster said. "We are working closely with their (Whitley Bay Yacht Club's) attorneys because we want to make sure that they're not selling those slips and that it's above board."
FLORIDA TODAY's questions were referred to Bill Rahuba, who calls himself a construction manager at Whitley Bay Yacht Club. He said the purchase of a club membership includes use of all yacht club facilities, use of a country club, and the use of boat slips. The club will be private, he said, but memberships are "open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis."
Debbie Farrar and her husband met with a yacht club saleswoman three weeks ago.
"They have diagrams with prices on each slip," said Debbie Farrar, who leases a slip for $425 a month at the marina. Currently, boat-slip holders pay $9 a foot at Whitley Bay. Rates at public marinas throughout the county range from $7 to $12 a foot.
Farrar said they were handed a chart that numbers every slip, gives slip dimensions, and lists prices -- ranging from $70,313 to $255,000. She and her husband picked one that was priced at $112,500, but decided not to put down a $2,000 deposit that was required to reserve it.
Nine Whitley Bay Condominium owners said they were told that boat slips were for sale when they spoke to the company sales representatives.
"I inquired about the slips and was interested in buying more than one," said Ralph Perrone. "The way I understood it was that they were selling slips and that what came with that was a membership to the Rockledge Country Club."
Rahuba said no slip-pricing document exists and that no memberships have been sold. He also said that marina slips will not be restricted to club members; depending on the availability of slips, non-members will have the opportunity to stay long-term.
A preliminary report by the Florida Senate released last month found evidence that the privatization of marinas is contributing to the loss of public access.
Current statistics on the number of public-access marinas that have been privatized does not yet exist, but the Senate's preliminary report figures offer estimates.
A 2002 DEP report listed 1,546 marinas across Florida. In July, the department counted 944 public ones.
In response to the Senate's statewide survey, 13 counties and 23 municipalities reported that -- within their respective jurisdictions and within the past five years -- the public has lost access to recreational working waterfronts. The reason: they were being bought up by developers and converted to private marinas and dry docks or to private residential uses.
According to members of the Florida Water Access Coalition, an organization of various boating interest groups in the state, 57 marinas or boatyards across the state have been converted recently to private uses. More sales are pending.
Just before Thanksgiving, Cocoa Mayor Mike Blake requested that the city attorney investigate the legalities involved in the marina's change-of-hands from a public-access marina to a private one. Blake's main concern is ensuring continued public access to the city-funded boardwalk and promenade -- an agreement formed in 2001 between the Whitley Bay Development, Inc. and the city of Cocoa.
"I just want to make sure that the citizens' rights are secured for public usage," Blake said.
The yacht club's Rahuba said there's no need to worry.
"Public easements from prior agreements will remain the same," Rahuba said. "There's nothing we can do to change that and we really don't want to change that."
Several Whitley Bay Condominium owners feel they were misled when they purchased their units. Included in the sales prospectus is a portion that discusses the marina. It reads: "The marina is open to the public. Unit owners will be entitled to lease slips as members of the public."
Although the marina was a separate entity from the condominium development, several condo owners, including Wayne Sanders, believed the marina always would remain public.
"I've been in the county since the 1970s, and it has always been a public marina," he said. "We have a beautiful place here and the marina was part of it -- not that we owned it -- but that we had access to it."
Sanders recently sold a riverfront home for his condominium -- a move he calls "a mistake" if the privatization goes through. At 65, Sanders was planning his retirement, which included a boat he has dreamed of all his life. Worried that he wouldn't be able to afford a marina membership, he canceled the contract he had on a boat.
"This boat was a third of what a membership would cost me," said Sanders. "I would have changed my whole retirement approach if I had even an inkling this would happen -- I wouldn't have moved here. The possibility for me to have a boat is gone."
Contact Brennan at 242-3722 or [email protected]
By the numbers
At the end of 2003, Brevard had the seventh-highest number of registered vessels in Florida: 38,990, an increase of 716 boats from 2002. It also had 3,911 registered personal watercraft, another 603 from the previous year. A 2003 marina survey, according to the county's Natural Resources Management office, shows there are 4,031 wet boat slips in Brevard County and 3,203 dry slips
It's quietly and slowly happening through out the state!
Last edited by Dean Ferry; 12-08-2004 at 07:33 AM.
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