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Airboaters try to rev up their image - quietly

Owners recognize that their vessels are often despised, so they seek legislation requiring mufflers on all airboats.

Published April 14, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Biceps bulging from rolledup sleeves, a happy smile under his Fu Manchu mustache, Reed Marsh cruises in his swamp skimmer through alligator-infested waters.

Florida has a lot of real guys like him, but this Reed Marsh is an action figure made by Fisher-Price. "Cool guys who are good guys," the company calls airboaters.

To Congress, airboaters are real-life heroes worthy of an official proclamation for work during Hurricane Katrina. Next week, Gov. Jeb Bush and his Cabinet are expected to offer a similar commendation.

It seems that times have never been better for airboaters.

But in the eyes of countless waterfront homeowners and environmentalists, airboaters are no more than boorish cowboys who revel in the deafening noise of their machines at the expense of wildlife and fellow men.

Now, airboaters have taken steps to clean up their image and reached out to state agencies and lawmakers for a series of reforms. At the forefront is a bill working through the Legislature to require mufflers on all airboats.

Airboaters fear the worst if they don't do something.

"The argument that this is our cultural heritage doesn't get us anywhere," said Phil Walters, a Tampa alligator hunting guide and president of the Florida Airboat Association. "We want to be here for generations to come, and we need to adapt to the world changing around us."

Clashing interests, sharpened over the past decade as once-remote areas are developed and airboats gain popularity, have triggered battles from Citrus County to South Florida, often resulting in local curfews or other restrictions.

By not adjusting to growth around them, Walters said, airboaters could go the way of net fishermen, some of whom were made extinct by a 1995 constitutional amendment.

Walters' group, which estimated that there are as many as 20,000 airboats in Florida, launched the countereffort about four years ago, helping develop a code of ethics that acknowledges that airboat noise is disruptive and urges operators to use caution.

"Understand that the public will judge by one individual's action all airboaters," the document reads.

The organization has taken to issuing news releases touting lake cleanups and other good deeds and said it will no longer offer blanket defense for truly problematic airboaters - the guy who revs his engine in front of picnickers.

"The miscreant," Walters said, "has got to go."

Not everyone is buying the message. Homeowner groups remain skeptical, and the bill is being criticized for limits it would put on local governments wanting to restrict airboats.

"We support the guys who are doing the right thing," said Don Browning, who lives on the 6,000-acre Lake Weir in Marion County. "But they are not getting support within the airboat community. They say you're a wuss if you put on mufflers."

Current law calls for airboats to be "reasonably muffled," but it has had little effect. Late last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to adopt automotive-style mufflers as a standard. But that, too, was weak without a law to fall back on.

So with the help of a lobbyist, the airboat community made a pitch for a new law. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, an airboat owner, and Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, a native Floridian who took his first ride a year ago across Lake Okeechobee.

"Riding on them is like a bridge to Old Florida," Aronberg said. "It makes you feel in touch with nature and history."

But earmuffs are required for a reason. Noise from the engine and propeller can be deafening. Florida Atlantic University researchers found recently that airboats easily exceed 90 decibels at 50 feet, the benchmark that state law allows local governments to use for regulations.

At top speed, mufflers have little or no effect because propeller noise overshadows the engine, researchers found. But in other cases, they can reduce noise by 4 decibels.

Even with mufflers, airboat owners acknowledged, they will still be the noisiest vessels on the lake. But the difference is measurable, they said.

"It's like night and day," said Bob Hoover of Inverness, president of the Citrus County Airboat Alliance.

He spent $1,000 on top-of-the-line stainless steel mufflers, though a boat can be outfitted for as little as $50.

Some airboaters are fighting the idea, particularly those who run in the Everglades, where development is scant. Local governments may also feel pinched by the proposal because it would require a super majority vote (four of five, for example) by a city council or county commission to pass such an ordinance.

"It means it'll not just be a knee-jerk reaction," Rep. Dean said.

The Florida League of Cities is opposing the provision, as are homeowner groups.

"It'll be impossible for the average person to petition their local commission for relief of a nuisance," said Browning of Marion County.

Perhaps no one has kept a closer eye on airboaters than Gertrude Dickinson, 75, of Sumter County, a fairly close neighbor of Dean's. Dickinson said the bill is a farce because of a clause exempting mufflers from airboats being used in races and exhibitions, or in preparation for one.

"It's a huge loophole," said Dickinson, whose anger toward airboats has resulted in a Web site,

While others are willing to see how a law might work, Dickinson is unconvinced of real change.

"The airboat victim community," she said, "has been thoroughly duped and deceived."

[Last modified April 14, 2006, 23:16:44]

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