On Tuesday morning, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners approved a new Waterway Rental Safety Ordinance.
- Background: Throughout the 2020 Summer, there was a series of on-water accidents involving jet ski and pontoon boat rentals that resulted in severe injuries and at least 1 death.
According to County documents, outside of those formally recorded incidents, there have been many other reports of rentals demonstrating:
- Excessive speeds in confined areas
- Reckless boating
- Minimal operational experience
- No knowledge of local hazards/zones
- An overall lack of boater courtesy
At the February 2, 2021 Board meeting, the Commissioners created a nine-member committee to assist the County in the creation of an ordinance and other measures related to marine livery safety.
- This includes personal watercraft (jet skis) rentals, but also potentially pontoon boats rentals and other motorized rental vessel/water related safety issues.
- Members were appointed soon thereafter and work began in April.
According to the County staff, this ordinance was put together over the last 12 months and was modeled after some of the ordinances presented to the Board at the time, along with ordinances from the cities of Destin and Fort Walton Beach.
“This really came from a grassroots movement by locals and citizens that came to the Board two years,” said Commissioner Trey Goodwin. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Goodwin says there were many difficult issues to tackle in getting this ordinance passed.
“You’ve got to navigate a whole web of state preemption and, at the same time, you’ve got to respect businesses that have invested in our community,” he said. “You’re trying to strike a balance between all these different interests.”
And while Goodwin believes this is a good start, he says there is still more work to be done on the matter.
Commissioner Paul Mixon voiced his concern over the enforcement aspect of the new ordinance, both on land and in the water.
“This is going to cost money,” he said. “It doesn’t end with us creating an ordinance, it really just begins. So how much is it going to cost and how are we going to do it?”
According to Mixon, county staff is going to bring back ideas to the Commissioners as to how to make the enforcement aspect work.
“I have some meetings set up with the Sheriff and some of his staff to see how we can partner together and how that can work into our Growth Management Department,” added Mixon.
- Moving forward, the county would like to work with each city to create a unified ordinance across all municipalities.
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In May 2021, the 2020 Boating Accident Statistical Report was released showing that Okaloosa was ranked number 6 in leading accidents. The majority of reported incidents were collisions with other vessels, and the primary cause was the “lack of proper look-out or inattention.”
- Among Okaloosa’s 31 reported boating incidents, 12 involved pontoon boats and 17 involved personal watercrafts.
- Two incidents involved fatalities and 16 involved accidents with injury.
By the end of July 2021, there were 191 waterway citations issued (non-BUI) by the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Department, of which 74% were from tourism related rentals, according to county documents.
According to Craig Coffey, Deputy County Administrator, about 20% of vessels in Okaloosa County are rental vessels.
“They are about 70% of the BUI infractions and approximately the same number of speeding infractions,” said Coffey.
Highlights of the ordinance include the following:
For the Customer:
- Requires Safety Training
- Implements wrist-band system for Customers that provides operation status.
For the Business:
- Requires Training for the Staff Members
- Identification standards of vehicle
- Requires radio and cell phone communication during all hours of operation
- Inspection of vehicle for safety
- Set minimum insurance provisions
- Requires a response vessel for emergencies and to assist customers
- Require emergency contingency plans
For the Location:
- Requires these businesses to be located in a commercial location. No PO Boxes.
- Restricts new locations to 500ft separation, grandfathers existing locations from separation.
- Sets site standards requiring an ADA bathroom.
- Establishes Parking requirement through a separate ordinance – Similar to Destin and Fort Walton Beach.