By Connie Leinbach
Fred and Marcy Zbranak don’t think they should have to pay for the clean-up of others’ litter–in this case, a partially sunk boat tied up at their Silver Lake Harbor dock.
It’s the latest in a series of abandoned boats Ocracoke has had to deal with in the last several years as to removal or disposal.
This topic took up the bulk of the discussion at the Jan. 28 meeting of the Ocracoke Waterways Commission where the Zbranaks sought relief. The sailboat unmoored in a recent storm and ended up at the Zbranak’s dock across from their house on Silver Lake Drive.
Ideally, the owner of the boat should pay for its removal, but in this case, ownership is as murky as the harbor waters in which it rests.
“It’s been a floating motel without a bill of sale or transfer,” Marcy told the commission. Although she has a list of names of islanders who have recently possessed the boat, “We don’t know who the boat actually belongs to,” she said.
Hyde County has no legal obligation to remove the boat, Ocracoke’s Hyde County Commissioner Tom Pahl said. “But we are willing to solve this problem because we can’t have the harbor full of derelict boats,” he said. “The harbor is an important tourism resource.”
He asked if the Zbranaks would be willing to share the cost of removal with the county.
“We don’t have any funding allocated for this,” Pahl said. “What if we split the cost of disposal?”
“Suppose we pay and next week there’s another one?” Fred responded.
The commission members agreed to ask the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board for an emergency, one-time $2,600 grant to pay for the boat removal with the caveat of seeking reimbursement to the Occupancy Tax fund from the boat’s owner. But the group acknowledged this could set a dangerous precedent.
Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the irresponsibility of others, noted islander Margaret Trainer, who shares a dock beside the Zbranaks. “How fair is it that we pay all these property taxes and not one of those boats is paying taxes,” she said.
“Fairness isn’t the point,” said Hyde County Manager Kris Noble, who attended the meeting via teleconferencing. “It’s the responsibility of this person who’s neglected his responsibility.”
In Engelhard, she said, there are derelict boats that would cost about $150,000 to remove.
An insurance claim is out, Trainer noted.
“Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover docks,” she said. “And dock insurance would make flood insurance look cheap.”
This all spotlights the gap in authority—prevention of abandoned vessels in the first place.
According to the North Carolina Fish & Wildlife Resources Commission’s website, which handles boat registration, all motorized vessels (including jet skis) and large sailboats longer than 14 feet operated on North Carolina public waters must be registered and, in some cases, titled.
But there’s no enforcement of these regulations.
“Fish & Wildlife doesn’t have the capability for dealing with derelict boats,” Pahl said.
According to the North Carolina constitution, the county cannot enact any law unless it’s enabled by the General Assembly.
“The legislature has to give us enabling legislation to regulate dropping anchor in the harbor,” Pahl said. “That’s what we’re working on.”
Last year, the planning board agreed that a boat regulation ordinance patterned on Brunswick County’s ordinance, which set up regulations to prevent vessels in that county’s waters from becoming abandoned or derelict, would be good for Ocracoke.
In the meantime, the county commissioners enacted an interim ordinance based on the state’s junked vehicle statute (GS153A-132) that allows for boat removal, that the owner is responsible for those costs, and that the county may enforce the ordinance including boarding boats to do so.
But Hyde County has not budgeted this, and other than the sheriff, EMS, the convenience site staff, there’s no administrative staff on Ocracoke.
But once a more comprehensive ordinance is in place, someone with authority has to act.
“We need a (local) governmental body to deal with these things,” said Stevie Wilson, the Ocracoke Advisory Planning Board chair who attended the meeting. “Once (the ordinance) is defined, we still need administration. The state needs a statute that makes it illegal to have a non registered boat in state waters other than private property.”
Pahl noted that last February, the county partnered with the National Park Service and a private party to remove and dispose of two sailboats that had become unmoored the prior October. “We had other parties agreeing to pay,” he said. “In this (current) case, they aren’t willing to partner with us.”
While Ocracoke’s recent derelict boats have mostly been sailboats, with other such boats there could be oil and fuel polluting the waters.
“We’re not the only ones (in the state) dealing with this,” Pahl said. “The whole thing’s a mess.”
Meanwhile, the Zbranaks hope the half-sunk boat at their dock doesn’t do further damage before it’s dealt with.
And, curiously, this boat should be lapping up against the shore.
“When this happened, someone tied it up,” Marcy said. “If we cut it loose, it could damage someone else’s dock.”
The Zbranaks, who’ve owned their house on Silver Lake Drive for 33 years, live in Chadwick, New Jersey, which also is an island, and they’ve been in the marina business, Marcy said.
“So we understand all this,” she said. “But when you have outsiders (boaters), you need regulations. Maybe all the people who’ve owned this boat should pay.”