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June 26th, 2013

Village ready to apply for vessel ban on Mashta Flats

M

 ayor Frank Caplan said a Wednesday, June 18, meeting with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission made the Village’s fundamental task clear if it wants to succeed in banning motorized vessels from the Mashta Flats.
As Village officials formally apply to the FWC for support of the ban – after which the FWC will have 90 days to act – Caplan said local leaders must make it clear not only that there is “substantial and compelling” evidence that a ban is needed to protect public safety, but that the ban isn’t too draconian a response.
“’Substantial and compelling evidence’ is their mantra,” Caplan said shortly after the meeting in Fort Myers. “It has to be found to exist to establish the fact that there is a public safety danger, and the response has to be not too intrusive.”
Caplan said he has no concerns about the former:
The Village has a wealth of statistics about the alarming – and increasing – number of deaths, devastating injuries, citations, etc. on the flats. “In my opinion, there is no way we won’t be able to demonstrate substantial and compelling evidence that a public safety danger exists,” he said.
As for the latter, “That to me is the variable,” the Mayor acknowledged.
He noted while Key Biscayne officials are convinced the only solution to the problem on the flats is twofold – the ban supported by enforcement – there’s no guarantee officials hundreds of miles away from the situation in Tallahassee will feel the same.
But Caplan, Village Manager John Gilbert and Police Chief Charles Press got a chance to make their case on the 18th.
Caplan said FWC officials – already having received a great deal of communication from Village officials about the nature and magnitude of the problem – seemed well-prepared to listen. “The commission was obviously informed about why we were there,” he said.
Caplan filled commissioners in on what has become an “acute, dangerous situation,” detailing how difficult it is for police departments to make an impact, both due to limited vessel and staff resources and due to boaters’ practice of rafting, or tying vessels together, which essentially forms a blockade against law enforcement.
Press also spoke, providing more detail about the challenges officers face, and how resources are becoming more and more strained.
The Chief shared his personal story linked to the flats: his daughter, Danielle, continues to recover after suffering life-threatening injuries from a boating accident on the sandbar.
Caplan also clarified the Village’s two-part request:
First, officials want the FWC validate a local ordinance – which the Village Council finalized the night before at a Tuesday, June 17, meeting – to block off the 12 acres of the flats within the Village’s jurisdiction as a motorized vessel exclusion zone. Sailboats, kayaks and other non-motorized vessels would still be allowed.
Second, they’re asking the commission to start the process to create a motorized vessel exclusion zone on the entire 60-acre flats.
Following the presentation, Caplan said, FWC officials promised to work with the Village on the requests. “By and large, we felt that we got a good reception,” he said.
But challenges remain.
Caplan, pointing to the strength of the boating lobby in South Florida, said the Village wants to make it clear its actions are aimed at supporting enjoyment of the flats.
It’s an issue Council member Ed London brought up on the 17th:
“What we’re doing is creating a safety zone for swimmers, kayakers, etc. – we’re not trying to exclude anything, we’re trying to be inclusive,” he said; Council member Jim Taintor agreed: “We’re protecting kayakers, canoes – right now, they can’t go there. It’s not safe.”
Despite that message, Caplan said members of the boating lobby have reached out to Council members about their concerns with the idea of dealing with the situation through legislation. He said the Village has to make it clear there’s no other option.
“We just have to,” he said. “We’ve got to do this. There is no law enforcement solution – it has to be a combination solution that includes legislation and enforcement. We need to de-emphasize the reliance on manpower, which is finite, and rely more on legislation.”
If the legislation falls into place, Caplan said, the enforcement should get easier.
As Vice Mayor Michael Davey noted during the June 17 discussion, “This is obviously the best first step, then I’d want to see enhanced enforcement;” Taintor added, “Enforcement is a major factor, but first we’ve got to get control of the situation.”
Caplan agreed: he said right now, enforcement is intrinsically hampered by the nature of the situation, with huge numbers of boats often rafted together against just a handful of police boats – at best. With a legislative ban, he said, clear signage will give police something specific to enforce and boaters will get the message – if not immediately, then soon.
“There will be a continued need for law enforcement, but hopefully it will diminish over time,” he said. “It will naturally subside – a couple of arrests later, they won’t come back again.”
Now, the Village is putting all of those arguments into a formal request package to submit to the FWC. “We will do that posthaste,” Caplan said.
After that, the Mayor said, local officials will continue pushing their message, while also urging the FWC to act sooner rather than later. “We will do what we can to make that 90 days more immediate,” he said.

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