What’s Next for Water Access?

Sometimes I think attending marine industry meetings is a perverse addiction for me. I believe I will be saved from complete perversion by the fact that I can quickly get enough.

I attended this year’s American Boating Congress, where the Grow Boating Water Access Task Force gathered boating executives working on the access problem under the leadership of Perko’s George Bellwoar and NMMA’s Dylan Jones.

Permitting problems were at the forefront. Unfortunately, these vary from state to state — and sometimes within a state. Nevertheless, tackling one state at a time makes the problem manageable, and there is hope that a “tipping point” will be reached where the remainder of the states will fall in line with those directly addressed. Most rational state administrations prefer not to “reinvent the wheel” if it can be avoided. An earlier program presentation by Ed Mahoney graphically emphasized the many overlapping layers of government intervention and permission requirements to be dealt with. I’ve lived through them personally, and it’s a long way from fun — in addition to taking years to accomplish.

I came away heartened that the Task Force will get a handle on things with this increase in focus, and serious headway will be made. There’s a good chance it will be made soon.

Virginia has also stepped up to the problem and the state hosted a first time conference in Roanoke, which I also attended earlier this year, on preservation of working waterfronts and boating access. Most of the attendees as well as the presenters were from governmental organizations. A lot of Sea Grant case studies were examined that promoted forms of waterfront access for the public. As you might expect from the roster, the thrust was toward governmental policy formulation to achieve a solution. Some of the proposed private property conversions and encumbrances made me really uncomfortable.

The positive feelings I brought from this second conference resulted from the great variety of interests anxious to secure more and better access. Maintaining old working waterfronts was also a hot topic, and frequently involved more nostalgia than economic need. For old guys like me, nostalgia is good, and everyone on board is my friend in the cause. The fishing industry is beginning to see the need for friendship with the recreational boating industry. We should welcome them.

The one group almost completely missing seemed to be waterfront residential and commercial developers. These folks have the money to buy up a lot of property. We need them on board for boating access to assure that the residents they serve have a place to put the wonderful boats they buy from us — or they won’t buy them. The developers I know share our concerns very closely. Boats and their access to the water are one of the prime amenities they hope to offer.

I admit to being old and cranky. I am not likely to recover from either malady. Therefore, I quickly confess old-fashioned concern with the use of government regulation as the primary tool for water access, rather than private enterprise encouragement. I suspect most Boating Industry readers join me to one degree or another in my preference. We have ample evidence that the flexibility of entrepreneurs is efficient — a bit less confidence in government programs. We seemed to be in the minority at the Virginia conference.

That depressing thought aired, I firmly believe that government can create incentives for private enterprise and achieve socially desirable goals like water access. “Let me help you” is much better than, “This is the way you will do it.”

Let’s hope our governmental contacts can helpfully work with us as facilitators instead of being the “Command and Control Office.” There was talk at the conference of “The Public Trust Doctrine” and how it must be ascendant over the “Rights of Private Property.” When I was in school, these were called “The Sovereign Rights of Private Property,” but the “Sovereign” has apparently been deposed. New Jersey apparently has some new waterfront regulations coming on later this year that are positively scary, at least to me. “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you,” isn’t impossible, but it’s going to take some enlightened restraint in regulation and permitting.

The roughly 1 million people working directly or indirectly in our industry, along with 17 million or so boaters, need to be the movers and shakers in the access arena. Waterfront developers need to adopt us as brothers, including water access fully in their plans. Make no mistake, government will fill the gap if we dawdle while we get organized. I give the government folks full credit for wanting to help cure the problem. I want to make sure that we solve it together — without parting with my property rights or reducing their value through legal encumbrances.

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