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'There's nowhere left'

Live-aboards feel their lifestyle is disappearing because of increasing laws limiting their stays.

Published June 20, 2006

GULFPORT - John Schneider is a 69-year-old karate-chopping retiree with a perma-sunburn.

Gruff and freckled, he's been a military cop, a private investigator, a security guard and a taxicab driver.

And, until recently, Schneider was a hard-core defender of a lifestyle he believes is vanishing across coastal Florida. He was a live-aboard, someone who used his boat as a home.

But after two years in Boca Ciega Bay, Schneider is leaving. He said he promised his wife, Pat, a cross-country trip in a recreational vehicle.

With his departure, Schneider is following friends he once called chicken for sailing off shortly after the city of Gulfport began enforcing a long-ignored law limiting the stay of occupied boats to 72 hours.

On April 1, Schneider got the first $88 ticket issued to a Gulfport live-aboard. He contested it recently in Pinellas County court - a symbolic last stand for his comrades.

He argued their offshore way of life is fading fast in Florida because "there's nowhere left to go."

"Florida is getting taken over by waterfront condos, and the people who have lived in the water for years are being kicked out," he said.

Boaters across the state are keeping tabs on the ongoing standoff between the city and the tiny but tight-knit community of live-aboards who refuse to leave its waters.

Many view the city's recent crackdown as just the latest nail in the coffin of Old Florida, said Richard Blackford of the 10,000-member Seven Seas Cruising Association, based in Fort Lauderdale.

"Florida is an international destination for cruisers," he said. "We're giving the message, 'Come dump your money and get the hell out.' "

Until recently, Gulfport was one of the few cities left along the Gulf Coast where live-aboards and vacationing cruisers would anchor undisturbed within city limits.

The practice is increasingly restricted in Florida.

Over the past two decades, coastal cities have passed laws or have begun strictly enforcing existing ones that limit the stays of people using their boats as homes.

The laws often require the boaters to anchor in zoned mooring fields or licensed marinas that boaters say are harder to come by as more are bought out by condo developers.

Such laws, including one passed in Miami Beach last year to protest, have often come after pressure from waterfront residents who have long characterized the boaters as free-loading squatters who dump sewage and invade their privacy.

As the summer cruising season approaches, boaters are also growing vocal. They argue the laws hurt two of the state's largest industries - boating and tourism.

Some have even begun passing out "Boater Bucks" printed from the Seven Seas Web site, writing how much they spend in each city.

"I never expected to actually be discouraged from staying here," said James Platt, 67, a Canadian and longtime cruiser who sailed to southwest Florida a few months ago.

The stay of live-aboards and cruisers who temporarily use their boats as homes are limited from one to 15 days from Madeira Beach up to Tarpon Springs.

Some require boaters who plan to anchor for more than 24 hours to apply for permits. Indian Shores strictly prohibits the overnight occupancy of vessels.

In online forums, boaters blame a rash of waterfront condos and ever-flocking snowbirds, or winter vacationers, for the resurgence in enforcement of live-aboard laws.

In Gulfport, police began enforcing a 1986 law limiting the stay of occupied boats in April.

The city is responding to an upswing in complaints from onshore residents irked by dumping and decrepit vessels, said Lt. Ken Dodge, the patrol commander.

Boaters point instead to a looming development boom along the water as the reason for the shift in attitude about their presence.

Undeveloped parcels remain along the water, but the city is seeing a revival as it transitions from quaint to trendy. A few townhome projects are being considered by the city, one near its marina.

A few people have sailed away since the city began enforcing its live-aboard law, abandoning the cluster of boats that have been anchored in the bay for years.

The boaters share beers, advice and sunsets. They whistle to signal trouble instead of calling.

And when the city passed an ordinance in December prohibiting the boaters from using the beach to anchor, Schneider began transporting several of them by dinghy to the wooden dock 100 yards away so they could go to work.

His calloused feet dipping into the bay, Chris May, 46, drank a beer and chain-smoked on Schneider's boat on a recent afternoon.

May is a former ironworker with missing front teeth who has lived on his boat for four years.

He was arrested several months ago by the Gulfport police for failing to comply with a ticket to fix a broken anchor light. He claims the notice was purposefully mailed to an old Orlando address.

Following Schneider's lead, May also planned to contest his ticket in protest. He will probably leave Gulfport, eventually, he said.

But not anytime soon.

"They're trying to make my life miserable, but I won't let them," May said. "For now, I'm staying put."



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