A new ordinance granting city officials enhanced power to remove boats abandoned in Hoboken waters has generated concern among mariners who have been mooring their sailboats legally for years on the city’s northern edge. In addition, it appears that officials within Hoboken’s city government are also confused, with some disagreeing over what the ordinance was intended to achieve and others calling for an amendment to clarify the new rules.
Abandoned boats have been an issue in Weehawken Cove – which is the Hudson River inlet wedged between Hoboken and Weehawken — since at least 2012, when the Hurricane Sandy storm surge deposited a large sailboat on the walkway that lines the cove. That boat was removed, but several other vessels are partially sunk in the cove or marooned on a nearby beach.
Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection say the boats are outside their jurisdiction, and prior to the passage of the new ordinance, city spokesman Juan Melli said the city had no “legal responsibility” to deal with the sunken boats, though the city was responsible for the beached vessel near Fifteenth and Hudson streets.
Currently, there are no rules mandating that boats pay any sort of fee to drop anchor in Hoboken waters, and because Weehawken Cove is not used for ferries or shipping, it’s technically a boat free-for-all.
The new law, passed by seven affirmative votes on Wednesday, June 17, allows the city transportation director to declare “any vessel…moored or abandoned on any navigable waters” a public nuisance and order it to be removed. In addition, a provision requiring all barges anchored in Hoboken waters for more than 10 days to pay a $25,000 surety bond was amended to include almost every vessel moored in city limits.
“The mooring for them was a free good, so they took no care.” — Bob Roistacher
Unlike the sunken boats, SailNY’s boats are maintained and regularly used. “We were just out there Sunday replenishing the moorings, putting in new chains, new float balls,” said Roistacher. “The moorings have been there several years and we check them every year.”
The ordinance has been signed by Mayor Dawn Zimmer and is scheduled to take effect on July 7, according to her chief of staff Vijay Chaudhuri.
Disagreement over intent
Officials acknowledge that the law means SailNY boats will have to pay up. Whether that was the intent depends on who you are asking.
Chaudhuri said this past week that the ordinance was not intended to ban the mooring of sailboats in Hoboken waters, only to ensure that boat owners behave responsibly.
“We welcome the use of the cove and want to further activate Weehawken Cove as a recreation option for water sports,” he said. “The ordinance is designed to ensure that boat owners are responsible for their boats…and that there is a streamlined process in place for, and a higher likelihood of financial reimbursement to, the city when the city removes boats in cases where they are abandoned.”
John Morgan, the Hoboken director of transportation and parking, said it was his understanding that the SailNY boats would be moored illegally under the new law, as they have not paid surety bonds.
“You can’t park for free in Hoboken,” said Morgan, “I don’t know why they think you can park a boat for free in Hoboken.”
While admitting that the plain meaning of the law’s text requires the owners of moored sailboats in Weehawken Cove to pay $25,000 bonds, Councilman James Doyle, one of the ordinance’s sponsors at the City Council, said this past week that it was an unintended error and the council will put forth an amendment to correct that specific passage.
Doyle did not draft the original ordinance, but said he made some revisions meant to streamline and simplify it prior to final passage.
Both times the ordinance came before the City Council, there was hardly any discussion of the question of moored, maintained boats, with the vast majority of the focus given to the sunken and abandoned watercraft in Weehawken Cove.
According to Roistacher, the city has greatly overstepped its authority to regulate water traffic, and likely would be unable to successfully defend their new bond requirement in court.
“It would be like saying you can’t park anywhere in Hoboken,” he said.
No such blanket bond provision exists on the New York side of the Hudson, said Roistacher.
Instead of a supposedly onerous $25,000 bond, he added, the city should be issuing permits for moorings and charging a fee, a much more common regulatory scheme.
Though the plain text of the law makes no mention of it, Chaudhuri insists that the new ordinance will create a permitting system for moored vessels, designed to work in tandem with the surety bonds.
A calm, cheap place to stay
It’s not hard to see the attraction of Weehawken Cove to boaters with a whole range of intentions. The luxury Hudson Tea condo building blocks most of the strong northeasterly winds that bedevil the Eastern Seaboard, and the inlet provides some respite from the Hudson’s charging currents.
Weehawken Cove has been as a desirable place to moor within New York harbor since at least 1609, when the eponymous Henry Hudson himself anchored there multiple times during his first journey up the river.
However, the most attractive quality of the cove to SailNY was always its cost, or lack thereof. The organization is non-profit and strives to offer the cheapest seasonal sailing membership in the country. That means it can’t afford the rates charged for moorings or boat slips at marinas in Manhattan, instead storing most of its fleet in Weehawken’s Lincoln Harbor marina since the early 2000s.
Much like in the residential market, though, Gold Coast prices faithfully follow New York prices. In 2008, Lincoln Harbor in Weehawken raised its rates substantially, prompting SailNY to move four of its lesser used vessels from there to Weehawken Cove (interestingly, individuals are allowed to live aboard boats in Lincoln Harbor year-round, so when viewed as a residential option, a marina slip is still quite a bargain, with seasonal rates for a standard 30-foot boat coming to only $533 per month).
“Nobody else had ever considered [mooring in the cove], evidently,” said Roistacher, “and when they saw our boats there, slowly other people started saying, ‘If he can do it, maybe I can do it.’”
Roistacher said these copycats are the guilty parties behind the boat graveyard that exists in Weehawken Cove today. “The mooring for them was a free good, so they took no care,” he speculated. “I don’t think they were just trying to dump the boat. I think they were thinking that they were going to use the boat but never did.”
At least one of the mariners Roistacher met had been planning to sell his boats in the cove for scrap before evidently giving up on that mission.
Hudson Tea residents concerned
The boat graveyard in Weehawken Cove has been the subject of media coverage since at least late 2013, but a perfect storm of circumstances pushed the city to act now.
The city is moving ahead with plans to build a community boathouse for kayaks on Weehawken Cove, and at the same time, “There has been an apparent increase in the number of requests to have the city remove abandoned and beached boats in Weehawken Cove,” according to Chaudhuri.
The boats are of particular concern to the residents of the Tea Building, a pricy complex just south of the cove whose residents include Eli Manning. Some residents have complained that the partially sunken boats are an eyesore.
“The big concern, hopefully shared with everyone in Hoboken, is not necessarily where it is right now, but where it’s going,” said Tiffanie Fisher, the president of the Hudson Tea Building Condo Association, at the June 17 City Council meeting. “It’s accumulated over time, so I think that what you guys are doing is literally going to stop that, which is great because that area is going to expand with the boathouse.”
Fisher said she had seen children climbing on the boat marooned next to the Monarch pier and felt it has become a safety hazard.
City serious about sailing?
A deeper question lies beneath the surface of the debate over bonds and permits: how open is Hoboken to the idea of a living waterfront?
Once the economic lifeforce of the city, the chockablock docks of Hoboken fell into disrepair in the second half of the twentieth century and were replaced with a waterfront almost totally closed to the river. All that remains in the way of direct access to the Hudson are two kayak launches and a private marina opened in 2002 at the end of Thirteenth Street.
City officials insist that it wants to revitalize the waterfront as a home for watersports, and they point to their plans for a new boathouse on Weehawken Cove as proof. But Roistacher said he has never seen serious interest in making sailing a part of the life of Hoboken’s waterfront. The closest he got was with Mayor Dave Roberts, who went so far as to seek bids for the construction of a public dock on Pier A before letting the project lapse.
Roistacher said he would be glad to run a sailing program for Hoboken children in Weehawken Cove, but that there was no observable interest when he reached out to city officials in the past. “I had enough trouble trying to get names of people,” he said.
To be fair, Roistacher said this is not a Hoboken-specific issue but a regional one.
“The problem with all cities in this part of the country,” he said, “which is not true elsewhere, is that the city thinks of the waterfront as a place to put a restaurant and a skateboard park or a bicycle path and walking path. They don’t understand that you want to allow access to the water itself.”
Roistacher has not given hope that he can come to an amicable solution with the city over his organization’s vessels.
“I would hope reasonable people would prevail,” he said.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.