City weighs next step in wake of ruling that invalidated Naples Bay boat speeds

— Boaters on Naples Bay won't have to come to a crawl to adhere to weekend speed limits, but a judge's ruling invalidating the bay boat speed ordinance doesn't mean law enforcement officers won't be ticketing this weekend.

State water safety laws, including manatee idle-speed zones, still will be enforced.

"If you follow the signs, you will be OK," said George Pino, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer. The waterway speeds are generally 30 mph, unless otherwise posted.

Naples City Manager Bill Moss said enforcement of city boat speed laws will be suspended, "at least for the time being," but state rules will be enforced while city officials determine their next step.

City officials received a four-page order Monday that ruled the extended, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekend and holiday Naples Bay idling-speed zones were invalid because city officials never erected "appropriate" signs after passing a 2004 law. City attorneys argued they could still enforce a 1994 ordinance, but the ruling said that law was repealed in 2004.

The ruling by County Judge Mike Provost dismissed citations given to two charter boat captains who purposely got tickets in April to challenge the ordinance. Boaters contended it was rich, Port Royal waterfront owners who wanted boaters to slow down.

Terry Forshier, Royal Harbor Homeowners Association president, said reaction to the ruling was mixed.

"People on the bay like the slow speeds, but people on the canal like to zip right out to the Gulf," he said. "Most of the comments were 'At least we won't get a ticket now.'"

Attorney Jim Fox, who represents Naples, has said city officials likely would file a notice preserving their right to appeal. Naples has 30 days from the June 21 order to file a notice.

The ruling was the third strike for Naples.

In December 2006, a state administrative judge struck down stricter proposed boat speed zones, ruling testimony showed safety on Naples Bay wasn't at issue and slowing down boats could make it dangerous. But Florida Fish and Wildlife officials issued a sign permit to mark those zones.

Arguing that the 1994 ordinance controls the time "gap" until signs are posted is contrary to law, the judge ruled. And because the 2004 city law changed portions of the earlier ordinance, he ruled it was in direct conflict so it entirely repealed the 1994 law.

Two years later, an appellate court overturned that permit. But Naples officials continued speed enforcement, citing state laws, including manatee zones. Collier sheriff's deputies and state Fish and Wildlife officers backed off, after their legal staff questioned the validity of the law.

"We were hoodwinked and that's always been my position," boat Capt. Eric Alexander said. "It was amazing to me how they thought they could do whatever they wanted — even after an administrative judge ruled."

Robert Farina, who fought a holiday citation he received a day before Veterans Day in 2006, and some other boaters who were found guilty now are demanding a refund.

"I was wrongly ticketed and fined, as well as inconvenienced," Farina wrote in an email to the city manager on Thursday. "After all these years, I now have been proven correct in my arguments ..."

A search of state Attorney General advisory opinions turns up no advice to cities about refunds for invalidated laws. John Lucas, an office spokesman, said attorneys there don't know of a similar case.

Not all boaters supported the captains' battle.

The Marine Industries Association was aligned with the captains when city officials proposed extending idle holiday and weekend speeds to all day, every day. But the group supports extended holiday and weekend speed zones.

"We want the weekend speed zones to stay in place because of the amount of boats on the weekends," Marine Industries Association President Frank Perrucci said.

Most boaters abide by the rules and are careful, he said.

Charter boat Capt. Allen Walburn, who helped organize the challenge, is watching everything unfold from his summer home in Alaska, where he also operates charters.

"This is a big mess that the mayor, manager, attorney and majority of council chose to dismiss," Walburn said. "What is their position now that it has been judicially determined they were operating for eight years outside of the law? This was a pattern of behavior they all knew was going on but chose to ignore. The question is: What is the next move?"

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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