Anchors Away

City Hall revives a scheme to do away with Dinner Key Anchorage, Miami's last floating village

Waterfront board chairman Richard Bunnell predicts the advisory group and the city commission will pass the plan, partly in response to the city's financial crisis: "If you're passing through town and you throw a hook out and spend a couple days relaxing, that's one thing," Bunnell says. "But if you're using the Anchorage as a permanent homesite, then you should pay for it. The city wants revenue, and right now, who can blame them?"

Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer echoes Bunnell: "If the fee is reasonable, I would be inclined to vote for it. If it isn't, I would try to bring the fee in line with what's fair. The Anchorage was a problem in 1970 and it's a problem now. I think the biggest one is the derelict boats. They're a danger to themselves and to the people around them, and to the people trying to get in and out of Dinner Key Marina."

In the past the independent-minded Anchorites have proven themselves capable of collective activism, packing commission chambers with boisterous opposition to the several regulatory efforts that have come and gone.

One stumbling block for city administrators has been the confusing question of legal jurisdiction. In 1949 the State of Florida deeded to the City of Miami a section of bay bottom near Dinner Key, which today underlies most of the Anchorage. But opponents of municipal regulation have long claimed that superseding federal maritime law protects the right of mariners to anchor anywhere in Biscayne Bay, provided no boat channels are blocked. "We're prepared to fight this out in federal court, or anywhere else," says Renu Mody, one of two attorneys representing the Dinner Key Anchorage Association. "That may not be necessary. I'm sure if the two sides can sit together, something reasonable can be worked out."

Abrams counters: "I see the legal issues as really being pretty simple. The city owns the bay bottom. Our intent is not to prohibit anchoring, just to restrict it to an area where it won't damage the environment. As for the federal law, I just don't think it applies."

Ted Guy, a maritime lawyer and director of the Stuart-based Marine Industries Association of Florida, says he fears Abrams is right. In 1994 Guy, whose trade organization represents 1400 recreational boat businesses, helped boaters sue the State of Hawaii in federal court. The boaters wanted to continue anchoring where they pleased without municipal control. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with local government, rejecting the boaters' contention that federal maritime law was on their side. "The federal preemption argument is dead at this point," Guy concludes.

Far more pertinent, in his opinion, are a pair of Florida statutes that govern anchoring and live-aboard rights. One of the laws states that cities can regulate any floating structure or live-aboard vessel. The other defines a live-aboard vessel: a boat that is someone's full-time, year-round home. Cities don't have the authority to regulate "nonlive-aboard vessels engaged in rights of navigation." Guy points out that many of the Anchorage's boats might fall under this rubric, giving boaters grounds in state court to resist the city's efforts.

With a week to go before the city's Waterfront Advisory Board was scheduled to vote on the anchorage ordinance, Assistant City Attorney Warren Bittner says he hasn't read it and knows nothing about the legal issues involved. The impending bankruptcy of the city might be keeping him a tad distracted. "We'll deal with it when it comes up," he explains hurriedly. "Right now we've got bigger issues we're dealing with."

Excellent, says Bricker, the Anchorage activist -- deal on. The more distracted bureaucrats are, the better for their opponents. In the past, Anchorites have packed the commission chambers, gone to court, or sicced outside regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Miami when the city tried to build a mooring field and charge fees.

"We've thwarted their efforts in the past by being a big enough pain in the ass," Bricker notes. "When they realize this is not going to be a simple matter, that it's going to be a legal battle and it's going to take time, money, and effort, they'll rethink the whole idea. One thing I can assure you is that these people aren't going to leave without a major protest."

From his houseboat in the Anchorage, Warren Thornburg has watched the city skyline rise to blot out the horizon. The stars have grown dimmer, and the bottlenose dolphins come to visit less and less. The survival of the Anchorage, he says, has always depended in part on the tumult of Miami's city government. Bigger issues have always emerged, distracting city administrators from their periodic pique to reorder the Anchorage.

"This city has been one lumbering, bumbling, shock-treated, beast of a wart hog for so long," Thornburg muses. "How serious they are this time I don't know. This always happens at the beginning of a new administration. The politicians have to focus on something before they get bogged down keeping themselves out of jail.

"This time they've brought the environment into it, and everyone loves the environment," Thornburg adds. "I'm sure they'll say it's about safety, too. And maybe they're right. Maybe your kid will be safer if you put a football helmet on his head 24 hours a day, but where do you draw the line between rules and freedom?

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