Sales threaten marinas' existence

Owners torn: take money or save facilities?


Robert Schell's lifelong dream was to own and operate a marina -- something he has done for the past four years. But Schell, like at least five other local marina owners, has decided to sell his public-access marina to someone who has other plans for his waterfront property.

The same developer who is trying to convert the Whitley Bay Marina to a members-only yacht club presented plans for the purchase and redesign of Scorpion’s New Port Marina at Port Canaveral. Image by Rik Jesse, FLORIDA TODAY
"There's too many rules and regulations to deal with when you can sell your property to developers," Schell said. "It makes sense to sell."

But for boat owners who rely on public-access marinas to store their boats, the sale of these facilities poses the threat that new owners will change business operations, transform the property into something else, or even eliminate public-access to the water.

In the last three months at least three public-access marinas, including Whitley Bay Marina, Indian Cove Marina and Island Point Marina, have been sold to developers.

At least eight more marinas across the county are for sale, are considering selling, or are under contract to sell. And several owners of marinas that are not for sale say they are approached regularly by developers who want to buy their property.

What's happening in Brevard County is happening across the state: small public-access marinas are being bought out by developers – often corporate developers – who have plans to change their use in one way or another, from condominium developments to yacht clubs and restaurants.

For marina owners, who are tired of state regulations and private interest groups that limit expansion and improvements to their facility and thus limit their profits, cashing in is an attractive alternative.

When Schell opened Surfside Yachts in Melbourne in 2000, the state limited him to 12 wet slips and no dry slips because of environmental concerns. After four years of operating the marina, Schell decided to call it quits. He put it up for lease, hoping a large boat dealer might want to rent his property. But it wasn't boat dealers who were interested.

"I had the sign up for 7 weeks and I had 800 phone calls," said Schell. "I had developers calling from Miami to Jacksonville wanting to do condos."

Schell's marina is now under contract with the highest bidder, a businessman who plans to build a restaurant where boaters and motorists alike can stop in for a hot meal. Schell predicts more marina owners across the state will sell, as well.

"I guarantee that they'll (marinas) all be gone in five years, I guarantee it," he said, "because it's just not worth it. The land is so valuable for condos that it's easier to sell than operate a marina."

Schell is one of at least six local marina owners wishing to sell his marina.

Others marinas for sale or under contract to sell include Nelson's Harbor in Titusville, Performance Sail and Sport in Melbourne, Diamond 99 in Melbourne, Jay's Harbor Lights Marina of Merritt Island and Tingley's Marina and Fish Camp of Merritt Island.

In addition, the owners of Kennedy Point Yacht Club and Marina of Titusville are considering selling. A developer has plans to buy Scorpion's New Port Marina in Port Canaveral, according to Port Canaveral Commissioners.

For Ed Carter, who has owned Diamond 99 for 27 years, finding the right buyer is challenging.

"There's a lot of developers who want to buy marinas to turn it into a condo," he said. "I plan to sell it to someone who will keep it as a marina."

Telemar Bay Marina in Indian Harbour Beach is not for sale, but manager Rick Rollins said they are approached regularly by people who want to buy the property. Rollins said the owner negotiated with a prospective buyer last summer, but failed to reach an agreement.

"The owner is a businessman and if he was offered an extraordinary amount of money, he'd consider selling," said Rollins. "If a businessman has an offer to sell his $2 million property for $5 million, let's face it, you'd do it too. If you can get it, then by God, you'll take it."

Scott Hubel, owner of Performance Sail and Sport in Melbourne, got an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I really don't want to sell, but when someone offers you an extreme amount of money, you think 'I can do this somewhere else,'" he said.

Because Hubel operates a sailboat dealership, waterfront property isn't critical for his business.

But for those who make their living renting boat slips like Chris Romandetti, owner of Intracoastal Marina in Melbourne, water is essential. And so is making money, something he says is hard for marina owners – who rent their boat slips for an average of $7 to $12 a foot – to do. As the supply of public-access marinas dwindles and the boater's demand for them increases, Romandetti says boat owners need to be prepared for rising slip prices.

"Are Brevard residents willing to pay what it would cost to keep public access?" he said. "Are they willing to pay $15-20 a foot?"Romandetti has operated Intracoastal Marina for 20 years and said he didn't "make a dime" until the last three years. The cost of building and maintaining docks and equipment, plus normal operating expenses, make it difficult for public-access marinas to do anything but break even, he said.

"Legitimate marina operations don't make any money doing it because you can't charge enough to make money," he said. "It's cost-prohibitive now to operate a marina."

To heighten the problem, Romandetti says state regulations make it nearly impossible for marinas to expand or improve their facilities, despite the public outcry for more slips and more access. To boost his revenue, Romandetti is considering some type of development on his upland property to compliment the marina.

"Why shouldn't I be allowed to expand my marina to allow for more public access to a growing population?" he said. "I would add 100 slips tomorrow that are guaranteed for access to the public if the state, county and local governments would allow it, but they won't let me. And it's all these elected officials making the rules."

Rep. Mitch Needelman agrees, saying the government – through its strict rules and regulations – have contributed to the limited public access of the state's waterways. In mid-December, he met with state Department of Environmental Protection officials and discussed his concerns with some of their restrictive rules. He also proposed an incentive program for marina owners who preserve public access.

"So, far, I've gotten a positive response from the DEP people who were in my office," said Needelman. "I will continue this discussion when I meet with the secretary of the DEP in January. This is not a dead issue. This will very much stay alive. It is one of the many frontline-burner issues that we're dealing with."

While many, including Rep. Bob Allen and boater interest groups like Standing Watch, Inc. and the Marine Industries Association of Florida, are calling for relaxed state regulations, others are concerned about how the state issues its submerged land leases. Charles Steinberg, a Whitley Bay Condominium owner, is concerned about the way the way DEP officials seem to hastily hand over public land.

Although the DEP has the responsibility of granting leases for use of the state's submerged property, state officials don't have a grip on how many public-access marinas still exist in the state, or at what rate they are converting to private facilities and in some cases simply disappearing.

"It seems dramatic that they're willing to give away public land without a second thought," said Steinberg. "They don't seem to have the public's interest in mind. The rights of the public are being ignored and until the public screams and yells they won't be heard."

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