'Ramping up enforcement': Okaloosa passes waterway rental ordinance to combat BUIs, other issues

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

SHALIMAR — While voicing concerns about how it will be enforced, the Okaloosa County Commission on Tuesday unanimously adopted a countywide waterway rental safety ordinance in hopes of cracking down on unsafe drivers of rented personal watercraft, pontoon boats and other motorized vessels.

In 2020, Okaloosa County’s 56 boating under the influence arrests led all counties in Florida. By the end of July 2021, Okaloosa had already racked up 65 BUI arrests for the year, according to county information.

Of the BUI arrests by the end of last July, 72% were from tourist-related vessel rentals. In addition, 74% of the 191 non-BUI waterway citations issued by the county Sheriff's Office were from tourism-related vessel rentals.

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office marine unit deputies Michael Powell and Andrew Maltais keep an eye on boat traffic near Destin's Marler Bridge. The County Commission on Tuesday approved a waterway rental safety law to help ensure that people who rent vessels are properly trained.

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The newly adopted ordinance is expected to take effect within 10 days after it’s filed with the Secretary of State.

It was crafted by a nine-member committee over the past 12 months and was modeled in part by similar ordinances for the cities of Destin and Fort Walton Beach, according to Craig Coffey, deputy county administrator of operations.

Committee members included vessel rental industry appointees and representatives of the cities of Destin and Fort Walton Beach, and received support from the Sheriff's Office's Marine and Beach Division.

Among other stipulations, the ordinance calls for employees of livery vessel businesses to undergo various forms of training, such as completing the state’s boating safety education course, watching Okaloosa County’s boating and waterway safety video and completing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s online livery course, the American Heart Association’s first aid response course and personal watercraft or pontoon equipment training.

The latter training pertains to in-house training on the safety and operation of the specific apparatus rented by a vendor.

In addition to undergoing all state-mandated training, the operators of each rental vessel will be required to watch the county boating and waterway safety video, receive personal watercraft or pontoon equipment training on the safety and operation of the specific apparatus rented and receive emergency contact information.

The ordinance also calls for the use of a color-coded wristband identification system that indicates the operators have met the training requirements and are properly licensed.

Some commissioners expressed concern Tuesday about how the new ordinance would be enforced countywide.

Commissioner Paul Mixon, for example, said county code enforcement officers already are overwhelmed with dealing with other issues. One possibility discussed by the board would be to have the code enforcement officers handle land-based inspections of livery vessel businesses while Sheriff’s Office personnel deal with issues on the water.

After hearing from Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie, commissioners agreed that enforcement of the ordinance will have to be coordinated with the local municipalities that border waterways.

“Hopefully we can ramp up enforcement over time,” Coffey told the commission.

At the board’s May 17 meeting in Shalimar, the commission plans to further discuss how the ordinance will be enforced. It also plans to review potential enforcement costs.