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Longboat raises a variety of boating concerns

Noise, access, exclusion zones all part of the conversation.

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  • | 12:40 p.m. March 10, 2022
Boating along the Gulf of Mexico beaches is unrestricted except for an area north of Gulfside Road in Manatee County.
Boating along the Gulf of Mexico beaches is unrestricted except for an area north of Gulfside Road in Manatee County.
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***This story is updated with Manatee County removing no-motor zones on the east side of Greer Island.***

Powered or paddled.

Beached or anchored a football field or more offshore.

Signs, no signs, buoys, no buoys. Or maybe more buoys.

Town leaders are working through the details and legalities of several boating considerations on the north end of the island but also along the length of Longboat Key’s Gulf-facing shoreline.

Most recently, Manatee County worked with the town to place signs in a small portion of the eastern side of Greer Island’s sand spit, designating the area as a kayak and paddleboard launching and landing area while also intending to exclude powerboats.

The idea was to create space between Land’s End and other properties for noise reduction and to allow freer access to residents who use their own docks on the north-facing shoreline.

In practice, though, boaters still routinely landed across the whole area. And although town police can point out the text of the sign and encourage boaters to move elsewhere, they lack the authority to either order them to do so or issue a citation.

Commissioner BJ Bishop said she crossed Longboat Pass Bridge recently and saw close to a dozen boats in the posted zone, "two of them tied to the sign that said ‘No Motorized Vehicles.’ Either we have a lot of people out there with no ability to read or they truly pay no attention to the signage we have out there."

It’s just one example of an ongoing effort between the town and Manatee County to address on-the-water issues, often made more complex by competing interests and layers of government.

And just this week, Manatee County authorities told the town they had removed the signs after about a month. According to Town Manager Tom Harmer, the county informed him that the signs had been added prematurely and that a motorized-boat exclusion zone would have to be established by the town before the signs could return and the zone be enforced. 

Enforcement of the zone on Greer Island had been problematic, anyway. In a town workshop earlier this month, Harmer said because the land is owned by Manatee County, and because the town had no rules establishing a no-motor zone of its own, the enforcement was the county's responsibility. 

And Harmer said the Manatee Sheriff’s Department has made clear to the town that its deputies wouldn't enforce the no-motor signs in the small area on Greer Island.

"We can’t write anything ourselves," Police Chief George Turner said. "I had a sergeant walk out on to the bridge and asked him if it was feasible to make contact with people and tell them, but what’s he going to tell them? They’ve already seen the signs — or tied up to the signs half the time — and there’s no enforcement issue. It’s hard to enforce that."

In an email to town commissioners, Harmer wrote: "County Commission Chair Kevin VanOstenbridge indicated that he continues to support the designation of that area and the County will work with the Town on what the next steps may be. ''

Although no formal action is forthcoming, town commissioners generally agreed recently that they’d like to empower town police to enforce those boat-beaching rules by creating a town ordinance of its own. Also, commissioners said they favored creating a motorized-boat exclusion zone for the lagoon just to the west of the Longboat Pass Bridge while still allowing boats to arrive and depart from properties on North Shore Road when the channel is deep enough.

Harmer said talks with Manatee County have made clear a desire to maintain Greer Island as a long-established destination for boaters in the region, especially because Manatee County and Sarasota County restrict how close vessels can come to wide swaths of public beach. In Manatee County, it’s 400 feet in places like Coquina Beach Park. In Sarasota County, it’s 500 feet at public beaches, which includes Lido Key, Siesta Key and Caspersen Beach.

He said Manatee officials were willing to designate a small portion of county-owned Greer Island as a nonmotorized zone and were fine with the town moving to restrict vessels in the lagoon. Town leaders also agreed generally to move forward with enabling regulations to restrict motorized boats in the lagoon.

"They said: 'For the lagoon, we don’t care. It’s not our property,'" Harmer said, repeating the county’s position. "But we do have an opinion on our property."

Some commissioners said they were surprised when they learned that the town’s Gulf-front beaches were generally unrestricted to boats, except for a segment along the beach in which vessels must operate at idle speed and create no wakes.

Vice Mayor Mike Haycock, a boater for 25 years, said the point is likely moot for traditional powerboats because the beaches are largely unapproachable.

"Because of the sandbar we spent so much money keeping, you can’t get a boat up there," he said, adding that personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis or Sea-Doos, were capable of reaching the sand.

Buoys marking the no-wake zone along the Manatee County beaches are codified in town regulations, limiting them from the north end of the island to the north access point of Gulfside Road, no more than a quarter-mile apart. Public Works Director Isaac Brownman said there are four such buoys in the surf now, spaced about a half-mile apart.

Although some commissioners expressed concerns about a proliferation of vessels coming ashore others worried about the ability of the town’s police department to effectively be drawn into the Gulf of Mexico for enforcement while demands exist elsewhere on the island.

"To the north, we have Coquina, which has restricted motor (vessels). And to the south, I’m assuming Lido Key and all of Sarasota, there’s no motorized (vessels) on the Gulf side as well, correct?" said Commissioner Debra Williams. "So we’re the only section there. We’re saying ‘so come on.’ Are we inviting some of these problems we’re trying to solve?"


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