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Neighbors complain about fast watercraft

Residents along the Hillsborough River have asked the city of Tampa to reconsider a ban on water scooters.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 1, 2002

NORTH TAMPA -- Guy Labalme has lived along the Hillsborough River for nearly 27 years. He likes the kayakers, manatees and boaters who float past his back deck.

He has no patience for personal watercraft drivers who disregard the idle speed/no-wake rules near Lowry Park.

Labalme says personal watercraft became a problem a few months ago when the city of Tampa yanked a sign banning their launch from the public boat ramp.

"Suddenly, when the sign went down, they started to appear," he said. "It's a safety issue. Accidents are going to happen."

Labalme and some of his riverfront neighbors argue the river north of Sligh Avenue is too narrow and curvy to safely accommodate water scooters. The nature of the vessels makes it tough, and unappealing, to drive slowly.

"Jet Skis are designed to go fast," said Jim Manitaras, 63, who has lived on the water most of his life. "They like to create waves, and turn around and jump them."

About 150 people have signed a petition asking the city to reinstate the ban. Without it, they fear more traffic and wrecks on the river. They also worry about the city being held liable if someone is hurt or killed.

Recently, Labalme took his case to the Hillsborough River advisory council. He cited dismal statistics on Florida boating fatalities and presented legal opinions supporting the ban.

To prove he's serious, he brought in the megaphone he uses to slow down speeders.

The advisory council agreed to ask the city attorney's office for a ruling on the issue. Members also want the city's marine patrol unit to beef up enforcement, particularly on weekends when more boaters are out.

"There's a regulation that's not being enforced," said Sylvia Espinola, chairwoman of the council, which makes recommendations to the Hillsborough River Board. "We have less enforcement on the river now than we've ever had."

Tampa park officials lifted the ban in March after a boater complained. The city said it wasn't fair to stop certain vessels from using the public ramp because their registration fees help pay for marine amenities.

Park employees said both sides make valid arguments.

"There are so many interpretations out there. Folks say, "No, you can't ban them.' Others say, "Yes, you can,' " said Henry McGriff, a deputy parks director based at Lowry Park.

Ideally, people who use water scooters should find another place to let loose on the water, advisory council member Thalia Potter said. Waves damage the shoreline and hurt the environment.

"Even when they try to go slow they are making a wake," she said.

Still, legally, she wants to be fair.

Some boating activists say safety should be the main concern, even if it restricts personal watercraft and other made-for-speed vehicles.

"I hate to say it but I think they present a hazard to safe boaters," said Claudia Michael, vice commodore of the Tampa Cruis-A-Cade, a private boating club along the Hillsborough River. "They don't follow the same rules and regulations that other boaters do."

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