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Editorial: A promising approach to reducing abandoned boats on SC's coast

Abandoned Boats (copy)

This file photo shows an abandoned sailboat aground in the marsh along the Ashley River, a not uncommon sight along the coast. A new bill could help. File/Staff

The expensive and pervasive problem of abandoned boats littering the waterways and marshes along South Carolina's coast will likely never go away completely, but a bill pending in the state Senate could ensure the problem never again gets as bad as it has been.

The bill essentially would empower local governments to work more closely with the state Department of Natural Resources to track vessels that remain in local waters for at least two weeks. That can help them identify potential problems before a vessel becomes submerged or stranded in a marsh, requiring a costly effort to remove it.

State Rep. Spencer Wetmore is very familiar with the problem because she was Folly Beach's city administrator before she was elected to the Legislature last year. She and Sen. Chip Campsen filed identical bills in their respective chambers to allow cities and towns to require a permit for mooring vessels on public waters for more than 14 consecutive days.

It's a logical move. The state requires owners to register their motor vehicles and doesn't let them abandon cars or trucks along state rights of way forever; this legislative push essentially extends that to boats. The House recently passed H.3865, and we urge the Senate to follow suit and Gov. Henry McMaster to sign it.

Although not part of this bill, we also would encourage lawmakers to tack a fee onto boat registrations or allow counties to set aside a portion of personal property taxes on boats to help pay for removing wrecked or abandoned vessels. But the bill is a logical first step to try to reduce the scope and cost of the problem.

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In essence, the bill would clarify the legality of what Folly Beach already has been doing. Last year, it began requiring boat owners to get a $15 permit if they have a watercraft or floating structure in the Folly River or public waters in its jurisdiction for more than two weeks.

Requiring boats to be registered gives a city or town a file with the owners' names and contact information, and that in turn helps local government talk to the owners as needed. "We have storms that come through, and we have boats that, despite owners' best intentions, will list or the mooring will come up," Ms. Wetmore said. "The idea is to have contact with the owners before a boat becomes a problem."

Few forms of litter are as difficult to deal with as wrecked boats semi-submerged in shallow waters; they're an eyesore and often discharge fuel, sewage and other pollutants. And they're expensive to remove, so such work often occurs slowly, often only after a city or town gets a grant to help defray the cost. In recent years, Folly Beach has received two grants to finance the removal of more than 20 vessels, many sunken, from its nearby waters.

Folly conducts biweekly patrols and knows the owners of all but four remaining vessels. It has issued 11 citations and is seeking state and federal help to remove and dispose of nine more vessels. Interestingly, it's issued only seven permits; most owners simply moved their vessels, presumably because they didn't want to bother with Folly's new rule. "There is a marked difference in our waterways and something I am very proud of," Folly Public Safety Director Andrew Gilreath says.

While the abandoned boat problem might have been particularly acute around Folly, it's by no means limited to there. Ms. Wetmore said recent regulations in nearby states have made South Carolina's waters more attractive to those looking to moor a boat indefinitely. "Georgia and North Carolina tightened their rules, so we became a dumping ground," she says. "It's a navigational problem and an eyesore."

It's also something our Legislature can and should address this year.

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