ASSEMBLYMAN TED LIEU at a Marina del Rey boating town hall meeting in August. Legislation that he sponsored targeting abandoned boats, AB 166, was recently signed into law. (Argonaut file photo)

Assembly Bill (AB) 166, which will provide assistance to local agencies for the storage and demolition of derelict boats on public waterways, was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on October 7th.

Assemblyman Ted Lieu, the author of the bill, had garnered support for his legislation for nearly two years, cobbling together a coalition of boating organizations, state agencies and law enforcement officials from throughout the state.

In an interview hours after Schwarzenegger signed AB 166 into law, the assemblyman said that its passage had special significance to him as a legislator who represents two harbors with boating constituents.

“Although the bill will have a statewide impact, it was special to me to pass legislation like this because it will help boating interests in my district,” Lieu told The Argonaut. “It was very gratifying to see that a number of boating organizations support this bill.”

The passage of AB 166 was hailed by boating organizations and harbormasters throughout California as a necessary step to reducing the number of abandoned boats that can become a danger.

“We really think that this bill will allow folks who own a boat and can no longer maintain it properly or who cannot sell it to decommission it more efficiently,” said Dusty Crane, a spokesperson for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors. “These (derelict) boats can often be a navigational hazard, so we really think that this bill will help us out a lot in dealing with these vessels.”

The governor signed several bills into law the same day as AB 166, removing any doubt about his earlier threat to veto bills that had arrived at his desk until the Legislature compromised on a water bill that has been delayed for several months.

Lieu said that perseverance and lining up additional support from police agencies was crucial to the bill’s passage.

“I’ve always been a fighter, and I was not going to be deterred by (Schwarzenegger’s) threat of a veto,” the assemblyman said. “We had more law enforcement supporting AB 166 this time and I think the governor took into account that we can actually take care of more boats for the same amount of money.”

The new law will allow state and county agencies to apply for grants from the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund to help subsidize the removal and disposal of vessels that are no longer seaworthy, have been abandoned or cause an obstruction on the public waterways. The fund is a state endowment that provides funding that covers average costs to remove, store and/or dispose of surrendered vessels and other navigational hazards.

It gives extra consideration to applicant agencies that are proactive in keeping abandoned vessels out of state waters and maintain a navigational hazard abatement plan.

AB 166 will also allow boat owners to voluntarily turn their boats in to a local agency for disposal instead of leaving them in a slip or setting them adrift.

Local boating groups also believe that AB 166 could help not only those who manage the harbors but also boat owners who encounter derelict boats as they sail around Marina del Rey.

Charlie Nobles, executive director for the Marina del Rey-based American Sailing Association, sees AB 166 as a tool that local agencies can use to remove potential hazards that could pose safety challenges for sailors who may not see a sunken boat in time to avoid it.

“I think that it will make the waterways much more attractive, as these derelict boats can be eyesores,” Nobles said. “They can also be safety hazards and are potential problems for boat owners who want to use their boats safely.”

Nobles said that he once encountered a sunken boat that he managed to avoid when he was sailing his vessel.

“It could have caused a very serious problem,” he said.

On August 13th, Lieu hosted a boating town hall meeting at the California Yacht Club to explain to the public what he believed were the merits of AB 166.

“The boating community is extremely important to our economy and it should be incentivized,” he said.

The director of the Department of Boating and Waterways, Raynor T. Tsuneyoshi, said at the same meeting that in some parts of the state, the rate of abandoned boats has increased dramatically in recent years.

“In Northern California, we have agencies that tell us that they are dealing with an average of 30 abandoned boats a month,” Tsuneyoshi told the audience. “That’s an increase of about 35 percent this year.”

The assemblyman has taken pains to point out that no one will be targeted unfairly, and unless a vessel is no longer seaworthy and has been abandoned, a boat will not be taken away.

“It’s a voluntary program,” Lieu stressed.

The costs of warehousing or destroying unclaimed boats can be costly. Storage charges in Marina del Rey start at 90 cents a foot per day, and after the third day it increases by 45 cents, Sheriff’s deputy John Rochford said in a previous interview.

If a vessel is no longer seaworthy or is in poor condition, often the boat owner will not claim it, leaving the county with only two recourses — destroying the boat or auctioning it.

“Lien sales can take up to six weeks, because the owner has a right to claim their vessel within that time period,” Rochford explained.

Despite assurances from Lieu that the bill does not empower any governmental agency with the authority to take possession of an owner’s vessel without their authorization if it is not deemed abandoned, some local boat owners are convinced that AB 166 will not serve their interests.

Andrew Bessette, president of the Marina del Rey Boat Owners Association, said that AB 166 could lead to further loss of vessels for small boat owners.

“This is another foot in the door to take a man’s boat away,” Bessette accused.

At the boating town hall, he asked Lieu who was urging the assemblyman to push what Bessette feels is a bill that is not in the interests of Marina del Rey recreational boat owners.

“Who is it that is urging you to keep pushing this through, and what are they giving you to do that?” he asked.

Nobles thinks that small boat owners should not fear AB 166.

“I think what they should be worried about is development in Marina del Rey,” the boating association president noted. “I have nothing against developers, but there have been instances in other coastal areas where new and larger developments are built and slips for small and medium sized boats are eliminated in favor of larger boat slips.”

Lieu, who will be seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2010, says he hopes that those who are unhappy with the bill will ultimately see its benefits.

“This legislation has environmental protections as well as removing derelict boats from the public waterways,” he said. “We value the boating community, and I think that they will soon see the benefits of AB 166.”