Derelict vessel rules get stronger next month

The state’s derelict vessel law, revised this year by the Legislature, will oil the gears of a state program that disposes of abandoned vessels throughout Puget Sound and along the Columbia River.

Legal action is pending against the 180-foot New Star, which was supposed to stay at the Port Ludlow Marina a few days but has been there since October. Photo courtesy of DNR
Legal action is pending against the 180-foot New Star, which was scheduled to remain at the Port Ludlow Marina for a few days but has been there since October. / Photo courtesy of DNR

For some reason, Washington state and Kitsap County in particular seem to attract more than their share of junk vessels. If you are on or near the water, you may spot these old boats grounded on the beach or else abandoned at anchor.

Some of these ugly boats are still seaworthy and just need some loving care. If the owners act responsibly and find safe moorage or else move their boat from place to place, they will probably never have to deal with the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Otherwise, recent changes in the law will allow the process to grind on more quickly.

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Melissa Ferris, who heads the state’s program under the Department of Natural Resources, told me she is pleased with the final version of the law. For one thing, it imposes a permanent $2 fee on vessel registrations in Washington state, a fee that was scheduled to drop back to $1 at the end of this year.

The $2 fee has allowed her program to operate with two staffers instead of one, she said. The Legislature additionally funded a third person in its jobs bill last year, and the new staffer has focused his full attention on identifying derelict boats and completing the paperwork needed for disposal.

Within the past few months, Melissa said, five abandoned vessels were removed from Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay. Others were pulled out near Port Orchard and Manchester — not including the numerous vessels taken into custody in Kitsap County over the past few years.

“We’ve removed a lot in Kitsap County, but we’ve been generally busy in a lot of places,” Melissa told me.

Vessel removals are pending in King, Pierce, Thurston, Jefferson, Clark, Skagit, Island, Whatcom and San Juan counties. Check out the list of “Notices of Intent to Obtain Custody” on DNR’s website.

Besides the permanent fee, the revised law removes criminal sanctions for failing to register your boat. Now, you will be hit be a fine, much like failing to purchase new car tabs.

Some of the fine goes back to the law-enforcement agency that writes the ticket, so the result could be increased enforcement.

From Melissa’s point of view, more boater registration is a good thing, because much of her time is spent tracking down legal owners who have not registered their vessels for many years.

In addition, government agencies will be required to inspect and register their vessels prior to sale. It’s surprising how many boats on the water these days used to be owned by a state or federal agency. Government vessels are generally exempt from registration.

The revised law also authorizes $200,000 to be spent on a pilot program that will take back boats the owners no longer want. It’s easier and cheaper to take the boats while they’re floating rather than dealing with them after they sink. Melissa said she will look to California, Florida and other states that have experience with similar take-back programs.

“We want to focus on boats that are the hardest for people to take care of on their own,” she noted.

Large cabin cruisers and old sailboats with little value are the most likely candidates for the take-back program, which could be made permanent if it is successful.

Appeals by boat owners who face losing their boats must be filed with the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board, instead of the courts, under the revised law.

Local governments are free to set up their own appeals process if they get involved with abandoned boats. As always, local governments that go through the process of disposal can recover 90 percent of the cost from the state program.

Melissa said the revised law encourages boat owners to deal with boats before they become a problem. “I think it will help move the whole program from a reaction process to a preventative focus,” she said.

A work group will tackle some of the more difficult issues that were not resolved before final passage of House Bill 1245 this year. Issues include how to make the owners of large vessels financially responsible for the problems they cause and how to get more boatyards interested in disposing of large vessels.

Melissa says this positive legislation was the result of a successful collaboration between state agencies and the bill’s sponsors: Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, in the House and Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, in the Senate.

Other information can be found on the website of the Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

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