The abandoned, half-sunken sailboat just off Waterfront Park rightly will be among the city’s top priorities in getting rid of derelict vessels with a $47,500 grant it just received. But the city and the county could do a better and more efficient job of removing such eyesores if the Legislature would pass a bill to streamline the removal process.
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, tried to do that last year, but his bill, which would have given local governments more authority to fish out wrecks and eased private salvage regulations, never made it to the governor’s desk. He should try again because it is, indeed, a statewide problem.
In the meantime, the city of Charleston is smartly forging ahead with its own program to remove six abandoned vessels over the next couple of months. Most have been marooned for two or three years.
Charleston police Sgt. Chris Morrell of the harbor patrol said he expected the removal work to begin within about a month.
Wrecked boats that obstruct navigational channels or pose an environmental hazard are dealt with swiftly. But others can hang around for years as unsightly blemishes.
One of the reasons it takes so long to get abandoned boats out of coastal waterways is because the legal process is overly complex. And one of the reasons it costs so much is because it takes so long. Over time, storms sink derelict vessels or push them far into marshes, making it more expensive to get them out of the water.
Ideally under current law, the owners would be identified and held responsible for disposing of their boats. But owners can’t always be found — in the case of the grounded boat off Waterfront Park, the owner died — and, after the 90-day abandonment process is completed, the responsibility to remove the boat typically falls to the state, which relies on sporadic grant funding to pay for removals.
The last big cleanup was in 2015. It cost about $134,000 to remove a dozen abandoned boats. That’s more than $10,000 per boat, more than most were worth in decent condition.
Dedicated funding would help. And if the state would further empower local governments to remove abandoned boats, that would open the door for them to seek their own grants, as the city has, or fund the removals directly. And if funding were available, local governments could take action as soon as the 90-day period expired and presumably get rid of them cheaper — before they sink or become so mired in a marsh it takes a crane to get them out.
Money for boat removals could come from boat registration fees, like in Washington state, or from personal property taxes on boats. In Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Commission funds a grant program that reimburses local governments for removing abandoned vessels.
Now, thanks to a grant via the Department of Health and Environmental Control and a $5,000 donation from the Charleston City Marina, the city has $47,500 for removals, including the semi-submerged Sanity off Waterfront Park and five other wrecks within the city’s jurisdiction, mostly on the Ashley River.
To speed up the process and reduce overall costs, the Legislature needs to give local governments the authority and the funding to remove abandoned boats.