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Airboat noise rattles homeowners

On Tuesday, commissioners plan to discuss how to respond to complaints. Most favor some type of regulation.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


Stanley Dygert makes it clear that he does not dislike airboats.

He just thinks they have their place. And that's not roaring around near people's homes. Dygert has fought that battle with a neighbor for years.

"He was running that thing all over the place. It was so loud it would make my windows rattle," said Dygert, who lives on Erin Way in Brooksville. "I went around and got a petition signed, with about 50 names, because we're all sick and tired of it."

So, too, are many residents who live along county waterways. They watch some airboaters trash swamp grass, scare off bald eagles and otherwise make noise and cause problems. They, too, want some relief.

"I'm not against airboaters," said Sandra Hoyt, a Hernando Beach resident who broached the topic of restrictions with county commissioners a year ago. "I am against the ones that misuse (resources). We've got plenty of water out here for anybody and any kind of boat. But they should not run through the areas they're not supposed to."

Commissioners hear the message, and they plan to start discussing how to respond when they meet Tuesday.

Most favor some type of regulation of the flat-bottomed boats moved by propellers that rotate in the air. Airboats can travel in areas inaccessible by other boats, and when they exceed 55 mph they actually ride on a cushion of air above the water.

Finding the right answer could take some time, commissioners said.

"We're just going to get ready to have a workshop on it," said Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who studied the issue with the Weeki Wachee Ecosystem Task Force, which recommended the adoption of some restrictions a week ago. "We're going to try to come up with a plan."

A blanket ban is not the answer, Kingsley stressed. The approach that emerges must be more nuanced, he said, to take into account the positive uses and responsible users.

At the very least, the county needs to have rules similar to those adopted by Citrus County and under consideration in Pasco County, said Commissioner Mary Aiken, who represents the county's coastal neighborhoods.

Citrus limits the hours of airboat operation and the locations where airboats can be run, and regulates the way airboats are used. Pasco is looking into time limits.

"I thought we had a slam dunk a year ago and we'd get something done," Aiken said. "We do have to have an ordinance here."

Commissioner Betty Whitehouse, meanwhile, seeks to expand the board's focus beyond airboats, because they're not the only problem she sees.

"We get far more mail about motorized boats on the Weeki Wachee, especially where the river narrows," Whitehouse said. "If we're going to look at anything dealing with boats . . . then I think we need to be comprehensive."

She figured hours of operation, noise control and speed limits were the minimum the county ordinance should tackle.

Dawn Durham, the county's environmental planner, told commissioners in a memo that they have a variety of options.

They can look at requesting further state regulation, for instance, Durham wrote. They also could investigate possible aquatic preserve or reserve designations to protect the waterways, and consider mandating boater safety education.

At least seven counties and three cities in Florida have some airboat regulations, she noted, and they deal with hours of operation, permitted areas of use, mufflers, sound levels, public safety, propeller blast, lights, launching hours and speed limits.

Denise Tenuto, environmental coordinator for the resource management division of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, offered several reasons for airboat restrictions in an e-mail message to Durham.

Specifically, she wrote, the rules are needed "to protect the homeowner's right to reasonable enjoyment of his property without obnoxious noise intrusion, to protect the natural resources of the Weeki Wachee river ecosystem . . . to protect the airboater and the recreating public, and to provide quality recreational experience for all recreational user groups on the river."

She called for a prohibition on airboat use near homes between dusk and dawn, and for the creation of an airboat trail.

Dygert strongly supported an ordinance banning airboats within a half-mile of residential areas, while Hoyt suggested that adequate "no trespassing" signs along the protected areas of the coast might suffice.

Sharon Carr, who lives north of Brooksville, enjoys airboating and other outdoor activities with her family.

"There are a lot of airboats in this county and Citrus County," Carr said. "They're fun. They take you into places you couldn't normally go with a boat that has a propeller."

She lamented that a few people have made it necessary for commissioners to consider restrictions for the majority.

"You've always got some people who abuse the privilege of using the public lands," Carr said. "I think this is basically why they want to stop this, because there's people out there making trails in areas where they wouldn't have to."

Whitehouse said she hoped to include the "responsible airboat owners" in crafting a workable solution to the complaints and problems. The discussion is scheduled to begin about 4 p.m. Tuesday.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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