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    A Times Editorial

    Vessel exclusion zone might endanger partiers


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 7, 2003

    Clearwater city commissioners are considering creating a "vessel exclusion zone" along a portion of south Clearwater Beach in an attempt to control crowds of young people who anchor their boats in the shallows there and drink, use drugs, take off their clothes and even engage in intimate acts in full view of waterfront hotel guests.

    But is creating such a zone solving the problem or just creating another, more dangerous one?

    City and county law enforcement officers Monday urged city commissioners to create the zone, which would extend 150 feet out from the shoreline and from the Adam's Mark hotel south to the Clearwater Pass Bridge. The situation has become increasingly frustrating to officers, who say they have been jeered, cursed at and even squirted with water guns by disrespectful young people.

    The crowds of young boaters are attracted to the area by the outdoor music, bikini contests and other activities at Shephard's beach resort. The boaters anchor side by side along the shore and spend hours partying on the boats and standing in the water while listening to the music. Police say the boats are anchored so thickly that it is difficult for officers to get access to the lawbreakers.

    That would be especially difficult for Clearwater police, since the Clearwater Police Department doesn't have a marine unit. The Clearwater department has to rely on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Marine Patrol, which do have boats. The Sheriff's Office is understandably concerned about having to commit more boats and deputies to the task of controlling the unruly crowds off Clearwater's beach and supports the creation of the vessel exclusion zone.

    The problem with the zone as city officials propose it is that there would be several access corridors from the anchorage area to the shoreline so that boats could run in and out to pick up and drop off passengers. Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton said Monday he is worried that boat operators, some of them probably having drunk too much, would drop off their passengers in the shallows, anchor their boats 150 feet out, and then attempt to swim back to shore to join their friends.

    Of course they would.

    And Hamilton is worried that they might drown in the process.

    The potential for such deadly consequences is increased because of the location of Shephard's. The property does not front on the gulf but on Clearwater Pass, which splits Clearwater Beach from Sand Key. Clearwater Pass not only has heavy gulf-bound boat traffic, but it is notorious for its fast-moving current.

    Through the years there have been numerous drownings and near-drownings of adults and children in Clearwater Pass. At Monday's work session, one city official noted that the area is not safe for swimmers (then why is swimming allowed?); and an officer commented that even now, officers frequently must fish people out of the water.

    Under these circumstances, Clearwater city officials would push people farther out into the pass, into deeper water? The water where boats anchor now is shallow. The water 150 feet out is 20 feet deep.

    If any other examples of why this is a bad idea were needed, there is the comment by an official at Monday's meeting that boats will not hold their anchors well farther out in the pass. So in a narrow pass with lots of boat traffic and treacherous currents, we'll not only have people who might be drunk trying to swim 150 feet to shore, but we might also have unmoored boats bumping around?

    There may be no perfect solution to this problem, but creating the zone officials envision is far too imperfect to be seriously considered. In fact, approving this plan would be a virtual abandonment of commissioners' obligation to protect the public's health, safety and welfare. They need to send the staff back to the drawing board.

    Shephard's outdoor activities are a big part of the problem, and Shephard's needs to accept its responsibility for having created what has become an attractive nuisance. The business may need to modify or shut down its outdoor activities for a time.

    Also, this is not the first time that the Clearwater Police Department's need for a marine unit has been apparent. A water-oriented city should not have to rely on other departments for law enforcement along the shoreline.

    The vessel exclusion zone proposal is scheduled for more discussion at Thursday night's regular Clearwater City Commission meeting. A lot more thought needs to go into this issue before any action is taken.

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