Okaloosa Commission sets public hearing for new Waterway Rental Safety Ordinance

On Tuesday morning, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners heard a presentation on the draft Waterway Rental Safety Ordinance.

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.

“Creating the ordinance was a detailed process, encapsulating what we believe is within the County’s authority and represents buy-in from the three industry appointees, resident appointees, and the two appointees from the Cities of Destin and Ft. Walton Beach and the Sheriff’s Office,” said Craig Coffey, Deputy County Administrator.

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 Coffey, 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
  • Restricts new locations to 500ft separation, grandfathers existing locations from separation.
  • Sets site standards requiring a bathroom.
  • Establishes Parking requirement through a separate ordinance – Similar to Destin and Fort Walton Beach.

John Stephens, of Luther’s Pontoon, Waverunner & Kayak Rentals, pointed out that there are some differences in the county’s draft ordinance, and what Destin and Fort Walton Beach have in place. He said he would like to see the cities adopt some of those differences into their ordinances, specially the wrist band system.

A public hearing will be held at the April 19, 2022 County Commissioner Meeting at 8:30 a.m. or soon thereafter to consider the adoption of the ordinance.

Click here to read the draft ordinance

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