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Battle of the Bilge

Boat owners in the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin vow to fight a city order evicting them over safety and health fears.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 15, 2002

DAVIS ISLANDS -- Mike Schnake moved to Davis Islands a decade ago. He doesn't own a house and he doesn't rent an apartment.

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Tampa has ordered boats moored at the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin to leave the basin because of concerns over public safety and health hazards. Boats docked at the Davis Islands Yacht Club, at left, are not affected.

He lives on a sailboat in the seaplane basin.

A Vietnam veteran, Schnake says he finds comfort and solace in his marine home. The waves rock him to sleep. The salty air cleanses his wounded soul.

"It's quite a nice place to be," he said. "It's been peaceful."

Until now, that is.

The city of Tampa in December ordered boat owners who moor their vessels for free in the basin to pull up anchor and leave. Certified letters gave them a 60-day deadline, which expires Monday, depending on when owners received the notices.

As the clock ticks, owners plot ways to fight the evictions. They argue the city has no legal authority or reason to kick them out of the open water.

"We're fighting. We're not going to cut and run," said Andy Bartley, president of the newly formed B FAIR, Boaters for Fair and Intelligent Regulations.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Mike Schnake, 55, who lives aboard his boat in the seaplane basin, has joined other boaters to fight a city order asking them to move.
City park officials contend the boats create safety and health problems. Boats break from their mooring during storms or become abandoned and unsightly. The area also lacks bathrooms.

"There are some live-aboards that are dumping waste overboard," said Ross Ferlita, the city's parks director. "It's really a case where you have an unorganized and unsafe situation."

Ferlita said the city police's marine unit will issue trespassing tickets if the boats don't sail out. If necessary, they will remove vessels and bill the owners. The citations carry a penalty of up to $1,000 and one year in jail, depending on the judge's ruling.

Tampa police Sgt. Alan Graffin said he expects most will comply. Others may wait until police start impounding the boats.

"We're trying to avoid a big confrontation without taking people to jail and putting them in handcuffs," said Graffin, who oversees the marine unit.

Ferlita says he sees no alternative.

"There's not a whole lot we can do. They want to stay there and the city's position is, "No, you have to leave.' I don't know what kind of compromise we can have," he said.

Since the city's order, several boats have left. About 40 remain, most of which belong to registered owners. The basin is located on the south end of Davis Islands near the yacht club. It serves as a landing strip for seaplanes at the adjacent Peter O. Knight Airport, although planes rarely use it.

Andy Bartley
Bartley said he refuses to leave without a fight. He moored his 23-foot sailboat about eight months ago, but has been coming to the beach for 20 years. He loves the serenity and the sunsets.

"You can come here after a hectic day's work, sit here, and your worries just go away," he said.

Bartley said he represents about 25 boaters, including Schnake. They met at the basin Jan. 29 to map out a plan. They have hired an attorney to argue their case.

Boaters say the city's concerns are unjustified. They clean up after themselves and keep their moorings secure. They claim they go elsewhere to use the bathroom.

"I'm not going to dump my Port-O-Potty," Bartley said. "I go swimming here."

Ferlita says problems have worsened over the years as more boats discovered the cove. Last year, several landed on the beach during a storm, forcing city crews to remove them. Just offshore, someone abandoned a half-sunk boat named Black Fish.

The city is applying for a $6,000 grant from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove the boat. If awarded, the money will come through around May.

In the meantime, the city is working on a plan to install permanent anchorage and restrooms at the basin, Ferlita said. Boaters would pay a monthly fee, depending on the length of their boat.

Making that happen may be difficult. The city has no money for anchorage and already has earmarked about $5-million to add boat slips at the Marjorie Park Yacht Basin on the northern end of Davis Islands. It also has no system for permitting or monitoring the boats.

Still, Ferlita considers it as a viable option.

Tampa has an acute shortage of dock space and many marinas have waiting lists. The Davis Islands Yacht Club on the south edge of the basin has 110 slips for its members and a waiting list of 80, said Herman Bips, the club's dockmaster. A few moor their boats in the basin.

"For every major event like Gasparilla or the Super Bowl, I get a hundred phone calls from people who want to bring their boats in," Bips said. "I tell them to call the city."

Bips says a city mooring would be helpful but probably too costly. He would rather see more public marina space, and points to the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, which has 610 slips, compared with 117 run by the city of Tampa.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Mike Schnake, 55, rows to the sailboat he calls home in the basin. "It's quite a nice place to be," Schnake said. "It's been peaceful."
Bartley says he doesn't object to permanent anchorage, as long as boaters have a say in the plans and can stay there in the interim. He also wants better facilities, noting that the adjacent dog park has more amenities than the basin area.

Davis Islands residents have mixed feelings about the city cracking down on the boats. Although they respect people's rights, they question letting them live there for free.

"I've never really liked it. It's like a trailer park," said Stanley Freeman, a resident since 1963. "Every time you turn around there are more boats out there."

Freeman says the anchorage plan may prove the best solution. Boaters would get facilities and the city could recoup the expense.

"Somehow the city and these people should come to some type of intelligent compromise that everyone can live with," he said.

Bartley said he tried to organize a meeting with park officials in January, but they canceled. For now, anchors stay put.

"I'm not going," Bartley said. "And if anyone touches my boat they can expect a lawsuit."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or

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