6 April, 2019

When we were researching the Tarpon Basin anchorage in Key Largo, I came across several years-old news articles describing issues between the local Monroe County government and the live-aboard cruising community regarding the use of the dinghy dock and the adjacent park behind the Murray F. Nelson Government and Community Center. Florida has fairly liberal laws allowing its citizens to live aboard near-derelict boats anchored in public waterways. There are a number of folks who choose or are forced into this marginal existence in lieu of the high cost of living ashore in the Keys. These laws, however, do not guarantee shore access.

Originally, the government building, which houses county offices (including the county sheriff’s) as well as community arts and theater space, had welcomed boaters to use their dock (which was a leftover artifact from a restaurant that was previously located at the site) to land their dinghies and access facilities and businesses ashore. However, issues had arisen regarding the live-aboards hogging the dinghy dock so passing cruisers could not tie up (even to the point of moving their dinghies), using park picnic tables to work on outboard engines, taking sponge baths in the drinking fountains (ew!) and making other park users feel unwelcome.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign…

These issues had apparently been worked out and we didn’t see any problems during the time we were there (though we did see that many of the live-aboards hang out in the park all day long). However, one afternoon we returned from running our errands to see newly-posted signs in the parking lot (which some of the live-aboards used to park their cars) stating that effective April 15th, overnight parking was only allowed by county-issued permit. Signs had also been mounted on the dock stating that tying boats to the dock or mangrove trees and mooring within 25 feet of the dock was prohibited. Monroe County had rolled up the welcome mat.

While this did not affect us personally since we were moving on to Marathon Key in a couple of days, it did effectively rob all future passing cruisers who would and do spend quite a bit of money in the surrounding community of a good anchorage with shore access. There is no other publicly accessible dinghy dock in Tarpon Basin, so with no way to get ashore, cruisers will not eat and drink at restaurants, go grocery shopping, use the (ridiculously expensive) laundromat, shop for boat parts, get haircuts, go snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park, and so forth. It may make sense to duck into Tarpon Basin to ride out a passing storm, but there is no reason to stay in the area and enjoy what the community has to offer.

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs…

I won’t weigh in on the county’s need to regulate its issues, real or perceived, with the long term live-aboards. I will say that their solution in this case harms the legitimate tourists that Largo’s tourist-centered economy is based on. Truly, there is little industry in the entire Florida Keys besides tourism, so why prevent an entire sector of that industry from participating in that economy? And just who is really being harmed by the live-aboards (admittedly bohemian) behavior? There were always plenty of parking spaces available; no one besides live-aboards and cruisers use the dock and who else uses the park besides the workers in the government center taking a lunch or smoke break?