tampabay.com

Places to store boats in water slipping away

Publicly accessible slips are becoming rare.

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published March 9, 2007


A clash between two icons of Florida life is leaving frustration and expense for boaters in its wake.

On one side, boat ownership, the privilege to cruise Tampa Bay.

On the other, waterfront condo development, the conversion of shorelines into dream homes.

Hillsborough County's public boat slips have become a casualty of the real-estate boom of the past five years, according to a report presented to the County Commission last month.

In that time, the number of slips open to the public has fallen 41 percent from 1,988 to 1,168.

The commission heard a report on the disappearing slips in late January and asked its Planning and Growth Management Department to come up with recommendations. So far, the options appear to be few and the remedies costly.

"We cannot continue to allow private developers to own marinas and not allow our public citizens to enjoy the waterways," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said.

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Most owners of boats 25 feet or less in length store them on trailers and use boat ramps.

For larger craft, slips are a must. They comprise about 10 percent of the county's nearly 50,000 registered boat owners.

Inter-Bay Moorings of Gibsonton houses boats up to 80 feet long that are worth as much as $3-million.

"This is a dying breed, right here," marina owner Stephen Ravenel said. "If we weren't here, they'd have to drive to St. Pete."

Five years ago, Inter-Bay rented its slips for $4.50 a foot. Now, it charges $10.50 a foot for larger boats and its large-boat slips are full.

Inter-Bay is one of just five public marinas in southern Hillsborough County. In northern Hillsborough, the shortage is less acute because the fishing is better farther south and the north shore inlets are too shallow for the larger boats.

"A lot of our customers are trailer boaters and they trailer that thing all over the place," said Chris Piper of Piper's Marine in Town 'N Country. He said only four of the 10 small-boat slips at Piper's are being rented.

But demand is still soaring farther south, where many marina owners are opting to sell to developers who then use slips as an incentive to lure "dockominium" buyers.

Ben Jones, who owns a 32-foot sportfishing boat and has used Inter-Bay Moorings for 10 years, said a trio of crucial boat services have ballooned in price: insurance, slip rental and fuel.

He estimated he spends more than $1,300 a month on these three: $550 for insurance, $450 for the slip and $350 for fuel.

Owners of bigger boats pay more for insurance because they can't move their boats inland when hurricanes hit, Jones said.

He's been frustrated by the slow government response to disappearing slips in a state defined by the water.

"We're in Florida, for God's sake," Jones said. "Tampa Bay ought to have a marina that starts at one end and goes all the way around to the other."

While the county report lists several strategies to increase publicly accessible slips, parks director Peter Fowler said the county currently has no concrete plans for development of its own.

The responsibility may fall to marina owners such as Ravenel to create homes for bigger boats, Fowler said.

In one of the largest slip-construction proposals in Hillsborough, Ravenel plans to add 100 slips to the 64 currently at Inter-Bay Moorings.

He plans to build a more upscale marina on the site and possibly sell some slips, but vowed never to sell the site to developers.

"This marina is not going to become condos," he said.

Asked what the county could do to add slips, Ravenel said it should "allow people permits to move more quickly" for private developers.

Still, he said the Tampa Port Authority has become "more eager to help" ever since the county recognized the need for slips.

Though boat slips may continue to disappear, most Hillsborough boaters may not see an effect.

"The average little guy has got it on a trailer, and even if he lives in a subdivision, he's got it in a dollar-a-day storage," said Mark Leslie, who owns Gibsonton's Bullfrog Creek Marine, which services smaller boats.

Though times may become tougher for owners of larger vessels, Leslie doubted many diehard boaters would give it up.

"If you've got boating in your blood, you're going to find a way to get out on the water," he said.

Michael Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 226-3404.