By Rich Pollack
For more than a decade, Highland Beach residents living near the Intracoastal Waterway have been battling to slow down boaters only to be frustrated by state rules and regulations that make it difficult to reduce waterway speed limits.
Now town leaders are focusing on enforcing those speed limits — instead of changing them — and are poised this month to take the first step by authorizing the purchase of a police boat for a new marine patrol unit.
“We keep talking about lowering the speed limit,” Mayor Doug Hillman said during a meeting last month following a presentation by Police Chief Craig Hartmann. “Even if it ends up being lowered, it’s not going to work if we don’t have enforcement.”
Preparing to act in the wake of two serious boating accidents since June, commissioners have indicated they favor the town’s taking responsibility for enforcement and education on the waterway, as well as on the ocean and inland waters.
This month commissioners are expected to consider purchasing a 28-foot rigid-hull inflatable police boat with twin 225-horsepower engines. The cost of the craft is expected to be $163,799 and could be available within 60 days.
Getting the marine unit up and running, Hartmann said, will take a bit longer as details, including staffing and training, as well as determining dockage location, need to be worked out.
The chief said he hopes to have the unit, which will include one full-time officer and possibly additional reserve officers, up and running by the first quarter of next year.
“There are a lot of things that have to be done to run that department,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
Labadie and Hartmann said that they have received several offers from local residents and communities willing to provide dock space until a permanent location can be created by the town, which will seek grants to defray the cost.
Prior to making his presentation, Hartmann and his team visited local law enforcement agencies that have marine units and did a small sampling of speeds on the Intracoastal Waterway during peak times.
He said that about 10% to 20% of the boats appeared to be exceeding the speed limit. Boats in the Intracoastal in Highland Beach are generally restricted to 30 mph in summer months and 25 mph from Oct. 1 to May 31.
Although other agencies, including the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, patrol the waterways, Hartmann said those agencies are spread thin and can’t devote as much time as is needed to Highland Beach.
He believes that by having a presence on the waterway, the marine unit will help deter boaters from speeding and operating boats recklessly.
“We’re hoping that through visibility, education and enforcement, that boaters will comply and we won’t have a repeat of the two accidents we had recently,” he said. “The marine patrol unit’s mission will be to promote boater safety through education and enforcement and enhance the safety and security of waterways in Highland Beach.”
In August, a 37-year-old woman died after being thrown from a boat that crashed into a sea wall in Highland Beach. In June, a Boca Raton boater heading to lunch with his family was seriously injured when another boat plowed into the back of his smaller vessel.
“We don’t want to have another accident like we had if we can prevent it,” Commissioner Evalyn David said.
Labadie said that the two crashes helped bring an additional focus to efforts by residents and commissioners to address speed and safety issues on the waterway.
“This is really about boater safety and compliance with current speed limits and navigation regulations,” he said.
Labadie also thinks the marine unit could help in rescue situations and assist fire-rescue personnel as the town moves toward creating its own fire department.
“Becoming a full-service community, we’re going to need to have a police and rescue presence on our more than 3 miles of Intracoastal Waterway and 3 miles of oceanfront,” he said.