‘The resting spot for many abandoned dreams’

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Frank Bemben, manager of the Bridgewater Marina, discusses the abandoned vessel, the Cormorant, which has been an eyesore in the marina area for years, with Sheila Malcolmson, NDP MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Judith Atkinson has been dealing with an abandoned boat on her Feltzen South property for more than two years.</p>

It was a week of women captaining moves to get action from government on abandoned boats.

Judith Atkinson, who has had an abandoned vessel stuck on her Feltzen South property for the past two years, appeared at the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg (MODL) council meeting on July 25 looking to churn up its support to have the boat removed under the federal government's Abandoned Small Boats Program.

At the same time, the NDP MLA for Nanaimo-Ladysmith in British Columbia, Sheila Malcolmson, who has introduced two private members bills concerning abandoned boats, was in Halifax, Bridgewater and Liverpool, hoping to put some wind behind Ottawa's commitment to deal with the problem.

The 17-metre sailboat, The Schwabe, washed ashore on Atkinson's cove in February 2015.

Atkinson told the council members the vessel's British owner has indicated he doesn't have the money to remove the boat, and that not only is it an eyesore it's dangerous.

"I'm coming to you and telling you what I know, and see if it's something you would take on."

Unsightly wreckage angers Lunenburg County resident

Under the federal government's Small Abandoned Boats Program announced on May 31, Ottawa will fund the cost of an assessment of an abandoned vessel up to $5,000, and up to 75 per cent of the removal of the boat, up to $50,000. However, it will only do so for an application put forth by a municipal or provincial government or non-profit organization. It will not accept applicants from individuals.

While council members sympathized with Atkinson's predicament, they were hesitant to immediately jump on board with assistance.

MODL's planning officer, Douglas Reid, advised there would be a number of issues connected to their involvement, including staff time, potential liabilities, the notion of setting a precedent that might lead to other such applications, and not knowing at this stage what the removal costs would be.

"Staff can't tell you right now whether that $50,000 will cover the cost associated with the removal (of the Schwabe.)"

Deputy mayor Claudette Garland worried it wouldn't. She recalled that her husband recently had his ship moved.

"It was a $60,000 bill. And when you get into environmental assessments, we've all been down that road. We know how expensive those can be. "

Councillor Michael Ernst surmised that the vessel is on provincial territory, noting that the province manages the land between the mean high and low water marks. He suggested MODL might consider getting the province on board with some of the removal costs.

"Could we not file a dangerous and unsightly premises complaint against the province?" he asked.

Ernst noted that the vessel had been en route from the Bahamas to Bermuda when it was thrown off course in a storm and ended up in Halifax. After being "kicked out" of Halifax for failing to pay wharf fees there, the owner transferred the boat to Lunenburg, where it broke free of its mooring during a winter storm and ultimately washed up in Atkinson's cove.

Ernst ventured that perhaps MODL should begin discussions with Lunenburg on the issue of abandoned boats.

"Lunenburg tends to be the resting spot for many abandoned dreams," he said.

Alex Dumaresq, the deputy administrative officer, warned it might be difficult to realize any plan with the province.

He pointed out things have gotten "messy" jurisdictionally when dealing with issues concerning whales that have washed ashore, for example.

"I wouldn't hold out too much faith that we will get a nice clear answer, and it probably won't be the answer that you want, even if we do get a response back.," he said.

"I think it's far from clear cut that the municipality has a liability. It's a different question whether or not the municipality has a moral responsibility to address something that appears to be a danger and is accessible to the public at this time," said Dumaresq.

There was also the question as to whether MODL had the authority to put up a warning sign, and what the liability issues might be if it did so.

In the end, council members agreed unanimously to direct staff members to put together a draft application for the assessment component of Ottawa's abandoned boats program, which would then be brought back to council for consideration. At the same time, staff is to research possible involvement of the province and discuss potential liability issues with MODL's solicitor.

Hesitation and ambiguity surrounding the issue of abandoned boats is what Malcolmson is hoping to address with her private member's bill C-352, which would centralize the coordination of the removal of abandoned boats in the hands of the Canadian Coast Guard, and give teeth to the system of vessel insurance and registration, making it easier to track down owners of vessels and recover removal costs of their abandoned boats.

While boat owners are supposed to register their vessels, according to Malcolmson, "the majority don't."

Many people buying a used boat don't register the boat because it allows them to avoid paying sales tax. "So they actually have a financial incentive to not register."

Nor do you need to prove owner registration to get insurance.

"You do with a vehicle, but you don't with a boat."

Malcolmson is also concerned about the amount she says Ottawa has set aside in this year's budget for removal of abandoned small boats.

"There's only $300,000 set aside for the entire country this year. $300,000 only," she emphasized, explaining it relates to when the program was announced within the fiscal year.

"It must be oversubscribed all ready," she surmised.

Malcolmson is hoping her bill will have its reading in Parliament sometime in the fall and be voted upon by the end of the year for implementation next summer. But the NDP members said she would be happy if the legislation comes together sooner.

"What I keep saying to the Liberal government and to Bernadette (Jordan, Liberal MP for South Shore-St. Margaret's) is if Transport Canada tables legislation that supersedes this, is better than it, then great. We just need to get it done," said Malcolmson.

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