By Everyone that I know has a fascination with bodies of water, be they lakes, rivers, streams or the ocean. This is so much the fact that huge amounts of money and time are expended by people in getting to and getting on these waterways. To be sure, whole industries have grown up around this desire to be on or near the water.
In the area of parks and recreation we have responded to the desire of the public by acquiring and preserving public spaces on or near the water. We have facilitated public access to water bodies and we have designed multiple programs to grow our piece of the business in water related recreation. That has generally taken the form of providing access, and programs through marinas, swimming areas, and boat ramps. Public boat ramps are always in high demand.
Right to the Water
Talk to an avid fisherman or other type of boater and you will know that they feel they have a right of access to water bodies. Further, the strongly held feeling of many of these boaters is that they have this right without the requirement of much oversight or control. Boating, it seems, is one of the last frontiers of individualism for many. This concept could generate endless discussion, but I happen to believe that the public does deserve access to these wonderful natural resources. It has generally fallen to us, in the public park movement to provide access to water bodies via public boat ramps. In this we have done a good job if the clamoring for more and more public ramps is a gauge of our success.
In providing boat ramps, there are things that we are frequently not successful in. Those things are being good and responsible neighbors to those living near public ramps and our frequent overloading of the natural environment in certain water bodies. As all of us know, these two subjects are laden with political land mines just waiting to go off and kill careers and programs. So read on and “prepare to come about”.
To the Water
Here in Central Florida we are blessed with hundreds of lakes, much like many other parts of the country. We are also experiencing tremendous population growth. Waterfront property is the most desirable for home construction. It commands top dollar in acquisition and development and thus generates top return in tax revenue to government. Many who own such property claim that they deserve special consideration because they “pay” so much more in taxes. While I do not support this somewhat elitist view, I do believe that we have a duty to operate our public facilities in such a way as to minimize the impact on these owners right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes and property.
On the Water
For the longest time we took the attitude that what happened on the water after we helped boaters get to the water was no concern of ours. We in effect, “threw the work over the fence” into someone else’s area of concern. I believe we refused to acknowledge that we were one of the causes of the safety and environmental problems occurring on the waterways. The reasons were simple. The solution to safe and courteous operation of water craft was complex and not cheap. It has to incorporate the cooperation of multiple agencies with over lapping jurisdictions and other multiple stake holders who have no real interest in the hard work needed to change the status quo.
What to Do?
For us, acknowledging that we were a part of the problem and not a participant in the solution was the start of coming about. This was the paradigm shift that was critical to change our current operations and maintenance philosophy. Then the hard work could begin.
We looked at our current design standards for the layout and operation of our public boat ramps. We began to employ Crime Prevention through Environmental Design Standards.
Since waterfront property was a premium commodity, we tried to squeeze something into every square foot of property. This included maximizing the number of parking spaces that we could get permitted. The result was a nightmare of traffic and congestion during peak times both on land and on the water. We now look at smaller concentrations of boats at each new or redesigned site.
In our urban settings we try whenever possible to build in a minimum 50 foot landscape buffer between our parks and our adjacent residential neighbors. We engage the neighbors during the design process especially in the detail of these buffers.
Different design standards are being developed for ramp parks that serve different populations. We will begin to differentiate between urban, suburban, and rural areas to be served by these launching ramps. Each will have differing standards and rules of operation. Specifications for ramp designs are prepared to ensure adequate room and facilities for those launching and those removing their craft from the water.
Excellent maintenance at each ramp site is critical.A foundational principal in safe environmental design is continuous upkeep. If the site looks messy and unkept it will be abused and begin to become a rally point for undesirable elements within the community.
Fees vs. Free
Many in our community feel that the access to the watershould bewithout cost. In some cases we were fortunate to receive State and Federal grants that paid for significant parts of these facilities. A usual and customary requirement in these grant allocations is that there be no launch fees.
The cost of upkeep and maintenance of these facilities is significant however. Therefore we do not charge to launch but if the boater wants to park their vehicle and trailer, there is a reasonable fee assessed. We employ the unmanned parking permit process, similar to that used by many state and national parks and preserves. We are also considering putting some of the parking spaces into a reservation pool and charging a premium fee to users who will be assured a place to park after a long trip to a favorite boating location. The fees thus generated are put to work at the ramps and our public is reminded of this at every opportunity.
The subject of behavior and control of unwanted behavior on and off of the water is a growing concern in our area. In most places anyone can put a boat into a waterway and get underway. Often people will operate watercraft without any knowledge or training in the safe and courteous operation of their vessel. By developing public launch facilities we are indirect contributors to this problem. As this problem has become more pronounced in our area we are undertaking measures that will help to contribute to the safe and courteous use of our waterways.
The fees collected for parking not only go into the maintenance and upkeep of the ramp areas; they are being used to pay the cost of shore side security staff. We do not employ park rangers in our organization, but we will use private security personnel to walk the area and enforce our park rules. This is more cost effective for us.
On the water is another matter. Local law enforcement has a marine patrol component to enforce laws pertaining to the safe operation of water craft. They are generally stretched very thinly in their operations. So in order to augment the on water officers, navigation districts have been established. These districts are composed of the residents that surround these water bodies. They assess themselves fees to maintain the lakes and shorelines and to employ off duty police officers to patrol their areas during heavy use periods. The navigation districts are governed by the residents themselves and the County provides the legal and other support infrastructure. We in the parks operation have paid for additional personal water craft for these extra officers to use.
The safe and responsible use of our public waterways is and should be a critical concern. The very conservation of these spectacular natural resources requires no less. As we become increasingly more urbanized, the way in which we operate our public boating facilities must be reviewed to ensure that we are providing a responsible and safe water resource to our citizens. If you in your community share any of our growing concerns or issues, then prepare to come about.