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Vero Beach should expand city marina despite Preservation Alliance opposition | Opinion

BusinessVero Beach should expand city marina despite Preservation Alliance opposition | Opinion

The impeccable lush green Floratam grass yards and sleepy oak-shaded streets seem an unlikely place for a vicious battle. This Vero Beach barrier island neighborhood — with its own baseball diamond, dog park and rowing boathouse — is one of the Treasure Coast’s most desirable destinations.

The marina in the midst of this idyllic setting is at the center of a skirmish pitting the Vero Bespanch City Council against the Vero Bespanch Preservspantion Allispannce, a grassroots neighborhood organization. The dilapidated, hulking eyesore of the marina’s dry storage building for boats looms as the centerpiece for this emotionally charged squabble.

A city-backed planning committee recommends a modest redesign of the facility. They want to lengthen and widen the storage building to make it profitable. The passionate residents oppose the ideas, particularly the expansion of the dry storage building.

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To outsiders, the disagreement looks like nothing more than a trivial philosophical difference. However, the divide has become political. It likely will factor into the Nov. 8 City Council election. And it’s being fought with the ferocity of Guadalcanal.

Vero Beach marina expansion

The dry-storage building at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina houses 52 boats no longer than 22 feet, with 20 more interested boaters on the years-long waiting list, on Friday, April 8, 2022, in Vero Beach. In 2019, the City Council approved recommendations from its consultant Coastal Tech to replace the dilapidated docks and the dry-storage building, consider additional parking and expand from about 100 boat slips to up to 165. The city-owned marina was built in 1968.

The project, according to a master plan prepared for the city in March 2020, would:

  • Increase the building from 8,000 to 16,060 square feet 
  • Increase storage inside the building from 54 to 84 boats
  • Increase racks inside building from 20 feet to 30 feet in length
  • Upgrade the building’s fire and hurricane protections
  • Move the building eastward about 30 feet
  • Remove a small office building east of the dry storage building
  • Increase the size of the floating dock west of the building
  • Raise the deck area in front of the building by 2 feet, to make it more resilient to king tides and rising sea levels

The height of the dry storage building would not change because of city building codes. Other docks would be lengthened and strengthened. Later phases would include lengthening the fuel dock and increasing the size of the mooring field.

Why the marina should be expanded

The Vero Beach Marina's dry storage area on the Indian River Lagoon is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. A citizen-proposed referendum could restrict the city from expanding and building on its marina without voter approval.

I toured the property with dockmaster Sean Collins on Sept. 9. I was impressed with how the city is making the best of a situation, working with a tiny marina in desperate need of being reconfigured.

The Vero Bespanch Municipspanl Mspanrinspan is sandwiched into a small space, but one that is protected by an island to its west and bridge to its south. The need for extra dock space and a larger mooring field is immediately apparent.

Each winter, the marina staff ties more than one boat at a time to its 55 mooring buoys, Collins said. The marina has enough room for about 238 boats and racks up an impressive 20,000 nights a year in stays for visiting boaters.

The glaring need, in my opinion, is a new dry storage building. The Vero Beach Municipal Marina is one of nine dry storage facilities in the three Treasure Coast counties. Yet it is by far the smallest, the oldest (built in 1967) and has the highest risk of being destroyed by either a massive fire or the next hurricane.

The last hurricanes to affect Vero Beach certainly took a toll on the building. In 2004, back-to-back hurricanes Frances and Jeanne bludgeoned Indian River County and took the 30-foot-tall sliding doors right off the building.

The Vero Beach Marina on the Indian River Lagoon is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. A citizen-proposed referendum could restrict the city from expanding and building on its marina without voter approval.

The doors weren’t replaced. When the city took over the marina in 2007, staff found it easier to operate the storage building without the doors, Collins said. But the rusting iron girders framing the doorways have holes so large I could see the blue sky through the beams.

The size of the flats and bay boats inside are all shorter than 20 feet in length — out of necessity. Racks or boats any longer would impede the ability of the boat lift to maneuver inside. These days, a typical center console is more like 30 feet in length, and that’s the size of the racks the plan calls for. It’s clear the building is generating a fraction of its potential revenue.

Generating revenue is what Vero Beach residents should be focused on. The city has very few revenue generators under its control — other than raising taxes. The marina redesign would cost the city $7.1 million, which could be partially paid for with grants and the difference made up in bonds, Collins said.

If the changes are made, the marina could net upward of $600,000 a year, compared to $477,307 in 2021. The marina generated over $2 million in revenue that year, but cost about $1.5 million to operate, according to city documents.

For comparison, the Town of Palm Beach recently approved a similar marina redesign project. The town agreed to sink $30 million into a redesign it hopes will generate about $10 million a year, according to the Town of Palm Beach website.

The reason the marina project will die

The Vero Beach battle recently took a tricky turn. The Preservation Alliance added span referendum on the Nov. 8 bspanllot requiring span citizens’ vote — and I’m simplifying the language here — every time the city wishes to change a public structure larger than 500 square feet.

The alliance worked to add this confusing referendum to the city charter after it said talks broke down with the city. Alliance members have said City Council members didn’t listen to them. But City Council members said alliance members were the ones who didn’t listen or bargain in good faith.  

Usually, I’m in favor of neighbors being able to decide what they want to live near. However, this project would not affect any of the lives of the people living nearby, or even a mile away, which is where I still found “Stop the Marina Expansion” yard signs.

At first, I didn’t give the referendum much chance of passing. But that was before I did the math.

Vero Beach has about 11,500 registered voters, according to an analysis of elections supervisor data by TCPalm’s Indian River County reporter, Thomas Weber. The alliance needed 1,130 signatures to add the referendum to the ballot. Of the 1,328 signatures they submitted, 1,156 were deemed valid, according to elections officials.

Since voter turnout is typically about 50% in a general election, it would only take about about 2,900 votes to accept the referendum, which may torpedo the marina’s dry storage plans. The alliance is already halfway there, based on its petition.

The city has asked a judge to decide whether the referendum should remain on the ballot, but time is running out. It’s very likely Vero Beach voters will get to decide the issue.

I hope they vote no and the marina plans move forward. Collins does too.

“If the referendum passes, it would shut this plan down completely,” he said.

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