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City floats new buoy program

The city is working on a plan to streamline the permitting of buoys.  -
The city is working on a plan to streamline the permitting of buoys.
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Islanders have two weeks to comment on a new city program aimed at instilling order upon the hundreds of mooring buoys dotting Bainbridge waters.

There are an estimated 500 around Bainbridge, some freshly installed, some decades old, others with unregistered boats attached. All buoys installed after 1996 are required to have a city-issued permit, though only a small fraction are in compliance.

To a large extent, the overpopulation of non-permitted buoys is due to an expensive, complex permitting process, and a lack of enforcement.

Both those factors will soon change.

Bainbridge Harbormaster Tami Allen is developing a programmatic buoy permit, an archetype for island moorings that when copied by future applicants will streamline the buoy-review process. The public has until Dec. 29 to submit comments to the Planning Department.

Once the programmatic permit is issued, Allen said, there will be an amnesty period to allow owners of buoys installed after 1996 to file for permits.

Then Allen plans to ramp up buoy enforcement next summer, with undocumented buoys eventually removed by the city.

“By the time it’s done, all the buoys will be identifiable on a map and there will be ongoing enforcement,” Allen said.

Historically, buoy applications had been funneled through the same permitting process as docks and other over-water structures, which meant city staff had to complete a State Environmental Policy Act review of the project. The programmatic permit will allow the city to waive SEPA review on future buoy applications, which Allen said will cut the cost of an application from $1,800 to roughly $600.

Each permit will still have to navigate through several bureaucracies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which requires a dive survey of the mooring site. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also weighs in, and the U.S. Coast Guard logs the position of the buoy to be included on charts.

Each buoy owner must secure a license from the state Department of Natural Resources, which essentially leases bottomland for the structure. Owners of property with 100 feet or more of waterfront are guaranteed one buoy license from DNR.

Allen said that owners of buoys installed before 1996 should mark their last names on their buoy to help avoid confusion, and either equip the buoy with a light or submit its position to be charted. Owners of unmarked or uncharted buoys can be held liable if a boat runs into it.

“If you don’t (mark a buoy) you’ve created an obstacle and a hazard to navigation,” Allen said.

Heavier enforcement will be welcomed by Harbor Commissioner and Chandlery owner Bob Schoonmaker.

Schoonmaker said it isn’t uncommon for a off-islanders to stop by his Eagle Harbor shop in search of materials to drop an unlicensed mooring buoy in Bainbridge waters.

Schoonmaker sends the prospective customers to Allen. He hopes enforcement will prevent more non-residents from dropping rogue buoys in city waters.

“Imagine if someone came onto your property, built a garage and parked their car in it,” he said. “It’s not that different.”

Many islanders don’t see a problem with the abundance of buoys.

A recent proposal at a Harbor Commission meeting to ban buoys from a suggested 200-foot-wide navigation channel through Port Madison drew protest from a large crowd of residents.

Among them was former Port Madison Harbor Steward Joe Upton, who said there is plenty of space in the harbor to maneuver. He wouldn’t mind seeing buoys set by off-islanders getting the boot, but he doesn’t believe there needs to be a clamp down on moorings set by islanders.

Abandoned boats are a bigger navigation hazard around the island, Upton said, and many of those are just left on anchor.

“You look at East Coast harbors and they are full of buoys,” Upton said.

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