Boats aren’t worth what they used to be and Warwick Harbormaster Jeff Baris believes that is why the city is faced with disposing of an increasing number of abandoned vessels.
In fact, some people who have discovered it’s no longer practical to have a boat make it easy for the city. After stripping the vessel of registration numbers and anything else that could be traceable, they leave it tied up to the city dock in Oakland Beach.
David Picozzi, acting director of the Department of Public Works, is familiar with the routine. The boat gets loaded onto a trailer and hauled to the compost station behind Mickey Stevens Complex, where Baris and his assistants attempt to find its most recent owner. When that fails, it is crushed up and hauled to the state landfill for disposal.
“It’s always been a problem,” says Picozzi. “We try to find the numbers and track down the owner.”
Of course, not everyone is as thoughtful as abandoning their boat at the city dock. Baris has found boats adrift, washed up on mud flats and in marshes. In the case of a 26-foot sailboat, above the high water mark on the banks of Occupasstuxet Cove. That boat dragged its anchor in a 2007 northeaster with a nine-foot storm surge that carried it to a resting place. It has been stripped of its mast and rigging. Removing the hull would take a barge and a crane and incur an expense Baris’ budget can’t afford.
In the case of that boat, the city was able to trace the ownership back to a foundation that received it as a charitable donation. The boat was then sold, Baris said, for only a couple of thousand dollars to a man that the city has unsuccessfully sought to locate.
Baris says the problem of abandoned boats isn’t as bad as it was 25 years ago when they “littered” the coves and beaches.
“We’ve gradually gotten rid of them,” he said.
However, he fears the economy could be bringing back the problem. He speculated that people can no longer afford their boats and when nobody else wants them, even as a gift, they salvage what they can and dump the rest. Some are even left at anchor or on a mooring.
He believes that is the case of a 24-foot cabin cruiser in Warwick Cove. The vessel isn’t posing a hazard to navigation, so it isn’t an immediate problem, but Baris thinks he’ll have to do something with it in another week or two if the owner doesn’t. Then there's an abandoned vessel – a 28-footer – in Greenwich Cove that threatens to become a hazard.
With 39 miles of shoreline, and more registered boats than any other single municipality, it’s no wonder that abandoned boats should be more of a problem here. Overall, about 5,200 boats are registered in Warwick, with half of that number berthed or moored in Warwick Cove. Greenwich and Apponaug coves have another 1,000 boats each, and Pawtuxet 200, Baris said. An additional 100 or so are kept in open waters on moorings.
While recently enacted state law is aimed at giving authorities greater powers and even some resources to do it, Baris is not so sure it will help.
Because the law enables a municipality to act quickly, Baris said, “I fear it could be perceived as a facilitator to disposal of boats.”
As for the creation of a fund that could help with boat disposal costs, Baris said, “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Under the legislation, vessels are considered abandoned or derelict if they are left in the waters for more than 45 consecutive days or more than 90 days during a calendar year.
Further, the law allows the authorized entity, once they take possession of the vessel, to seek some monetary value for the boat, either in whole or as scrap, or through a public auction.
Any proceeds derived from the sale of the recovered boats will first be used to cover the cost of the removal and, if any funds remain, to satisfy any liens registered against the vessel. Any funds remaining after those costs and obligations are satisfied will be turned over to a “Derelict and Abandoned Vessel and Obstruction Removal Account” that is established by the legislation.
That fund, which is to be administered by the Department of Environmental Management, will be used to cover the cost of removing, disposing of and/or selling the abandoned vessels, including any associated administrative or environmental remediation costs.
“Local communities are already taking care of disposing of these abandoned vessels, because they are potentially dangerous and hazardous,” said Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) in a statement. “But that can be a costly proposition for a community that is already under the financial gun.”
“This legislation,” said House bill sponsor Rep. Jan P. Malik (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren), “will allow the community where the abandoned boat is located to use or dispose of the vessel in such a way as to derive some monetary benefit.”
The new law also establishes a “Derelict and Abandoned Vessel and Obstruction Removal Commission,” a five-member body that will prioritize use of funds in the new account and to develop criteria regarding removal of the vessels.
It creates a vessel and obstruction removal fee to be assessed in addition to the regular registration fee, on a sliding scale from $2 for a vessel 1 to 15 feet in length up to $20 for a vessel 51 feet and longer.
The bulk of the new law goes into effect immediately, but the abandoned vessel fees for registrations will go into effect on March 1, 2013.
Naturally, not all boats adrift or aground in the shallows are abandoned. That was the case with a 21-foot Chris Craft found in the upper reaches of Passeonkquis Cove. The boat carried a Vermont registration number and looked in too good shape to be abandoned. Baris secured it and Gaspee Plateau residents kept an eye on it. A man came around last weekend to gratefully claim it.
Those cases are rare.
In the past year, Baris said the city has had to dispose of at least 10 boats. He would like to see stiffer fines and penalties for abandoning a boat and has talked with Councilman John DelGiudice about legislative changes.
There was a time when most of the abandoned boats were wood.
“I wish boats were still made of wood, so they were biodegradable,” Baris said.