One of Sarasota’s oldest sporting organizations received a body blow from Tallahassee on April 20. State bureaucrats ruled the Sarasota Sailing Squadron would not receive permission to manage its historic mooring field, and it might face significant fines and penalties unless it trims back or eliminates the mooring facility.
Under the terms of two ordinances passed by the Sarasota City Commission the night of May 7, boaters may have to leave the squadron and migrate to the city’s bayfront mooring facility, which is managed by the for-profit Marina Jack Inc.
Under full disclosure, I’m a longstanding member of the squadron, and I have been a board member for six years. I worked diligently to bring some order and regulation to the mooring field, which continues to exist in a state of anarchy because the state refuses to allow the squadron to manage it.
Fourteen years ago, the squadron realized it should comply with new state rules; it stepped forward voluntarily to seek permission to bring order to the chaos along its waterfront. With the stroke of a Tallahassee pen, those 14 years of effort to comply with state regulation were flushed away. The reason? “Fee-waived leases require unfettered public access. Is the squadron quasi-public or quasi-private?” the bureaucrats asked.
Perhaps the state officials should have read the fine print of the voluminous application and correspondence. If they had done so, they would have learned the squadron has been a custodian of public land since 1958, when the city leased a barren parcel to a handful of volunteers. Squadron members raised a clubhouse, installed docks and storage facilities for small boats and created a host of other amenities available to anyone.
You could put their “quasi” question to the Friends of Florida Folk Music, who have met for decades on the squadron’s grounds every month for concerts. Or you could ask the Argus Foundation, which this Friday, May 11, will hold its annual membership feast there. The range of “outsiders” who use the facilities range from unreconstructed hippies to the community’s most influential businesspeople. That’s not mentioning the countless weddings, birthday parties and celebrations of life held on squadron grounds.
Plus the thousands of children and teens who learned to sail at the squadron. And the thousands of working people who were able to sail over the decades because dues and storage fees were cheaper than those anywhere else along this coast.
The Benderson Park rowing facility is being showered with millions in public money to create a state, regional, national and eventually an international venue for rowing contests. Is it quasi-public or quasi-private?
The Sarasota Sailing Squadron has hosted innumerable state, regional and national competitions, and several world competitions. And never has it asked for a single dime of public money. The volunteers not only worked the events to make them happen, but backed them with the financial resources of the club. Maybe we should have begged for tax dollars to demonstrate our “quasi-public” nature. Instead we did it ourselves.
The City of Sarasota recognized the value and virtue of preserving this “piece of old Florida,” and fully cooperated with the squadron over the past 14 years of negotiations with state bureaucrats. City officials know we’ve never turned anybody away if they behaved themselves.
This is a pure “Catch 22” drama. The state is punishing the squadron for events the squadron was powerless to prevent. What the squadron sought was management authority over the mooring field to prevent its unauthorized use.
The squadron was forced to apply three separate times for that privilege, as the first two applications were deemed insufficient after state reviews that took years. During processing of a 2004 application, “The department [of environmental protection] became aware that an additional 65 [mooring] anchors had been installed at the facility without authorization from the department. At the suggestion of department staff, [in] October 2007, the applicants withdrew their application for a lease so that the violations could be resolved prior to the issuance of a lease,” says the Notice of Denial in April 2012.
What the Notice of Denial does not say is that the squadron had no authority to prevent the installation of additional mooring anchors. In fact, that was one of the reasons the squadron was applying for a lease, so it could prevent unauthorized activity in the mooring field.
At no time did the squadron try to hide its history or current circumstances. It went to the state initially in search of help to resolve a growing problem with unauthorized moorings, insufficient maintenance and a total lack of rules — circumstances that remain to this day because of the lethargic and inscrutable but impervious state bureaucracy.
Unlike the rowers, the volunteer sailors were not looking for a handout. They were simply trying to take responsibility for management and maintenance of a historic amenity — a place to tie up a boat. By being open and forward, the squadron, it appears, will lose the use of that amenity.
A few lessons learned? Doing “the right thing” in a bureaucratic environment is the wrong thing to do. Hide and cover up, if possible. If not, hire lobbyists and lawyers to placate the bureaucrats. Lobbyists and lawyers have clout; citizens do not.
The squadron did everything the state bureaucrats asked, and all the bureaucrats did was request more and more and more paper. Eventually they decided they’d had enough, and told us to cease and desist; then, they threatened the squadron with fines and penalties.
The squadron has the right to challenge the decision on appeal, which could cost – by one estimate – $100,000, with no guarantee of success.
The founders of the Sarasota Sailing Squadron were a bunch of teenagers in the 1930s. In World War II as Coast Guardsmen, some drove the landing craft on D-Day and during other amphibious invasions, bringing in the living and taking out the dead. I wonder what they’d think of their state government today.