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Frank Thomas used to enjoy taking his boat out on the river in downtown Toledo, dining at restaurants there or passing through on his way to Lake Erie.
Not any more.
Over the last decade, Mr. Thomas and many boaters like him say, the Toledo area’s waterways have become increasingly filled with over-zealous patrol boats that deter them from venturing downtown.
Many complain they can’t go down the Maumee River without getting stopped by one marine law-enforcement agency or another, be it the U.S. Coast Guard, the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, or a local water patrol unit such as one run by the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office. Some complained they have been stopped by patrols multiple times for “safety checks,” even when their boats have been inspected and when they said they haven’t done anything wrong.
For Mr. Thomas, the situation became so frustrating that in 2005 he moved his vessel to the Harbor View Yacht Club in Oregon so he could avoid the Toledo part of the Maumee River altogether.
Since then, he said he has visited Toledo’s downtown on his boat just three times.
“You have so many law enforcement agencies in this area vying for such a small piece of the pie and that’s why everybody gets stopped,” Mr. Thomas said. “It was [a hassle] just to get down to the lake. I decided I’d just move closer.”
Officials take notice
His complaint, echoed by many other area boaters, has not gone unnoticed by local elected officials. Toledo Mayor Mike Bell’s office led efforts last year to address the problem, meeting with yacht club representatives and reaching out to state and federal offices to voice concerns, city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) also met with law enforcement officials and yacht club representatives at her office.
But so far, according to yacht club leaders and government officials, scant progress has been made in discerning who is to blame for the boaters’ distaste, and no agreement has come from law enforcement officers on what should be done about it. With the boating season fast approaching, the issue is again starting to rear its head.
Last week, Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken refused to support the acceptance of a $20,000 state grant for the county sheriff’s water-patrol unit, insisting too many law enforcement agencies are already on the river. The measure was passed by the other two commissioners, Tina Skeldon Wozniak and Carol Contrada, but both made clear their concerns about the level of law enforcement on Lucas County waters.
“This needs to be resolved once and for all, and I’m not going to support it again,” Ms. Wozniak said.
Ms. Contrada said she would support keeping the sheriff’s patrol only so that the county’s own unit could maintain some clout in future negotiations about the problem with other marine enforcement agencies.
At least four agencies patrol the Toledo-area section of the Maumee River.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a station with four boats in downtown Toledo, and it conducts year-round patrols on western Lake Erie waterways, including the Maumee and Ottawa rivers.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Watercraft has an office in Maumee Bay that oversees the lake and waterways across eight counties, including Lucas and Wood.
Supervisor Chad German said the office usually has one boat out on the Maumee or Ottawa river or in the Maumee Bay area, mainly on weekends. Through the state grant, the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office operates a patrol boat on county waters during the summer.
Director Donald Atkinson insisted that sheriff’s personnel patrol mainly in Lake Erie, although they do travel into the Maumee River for special events or if called to help in an emergency.
The sheriff’s office also works in partnership with federal, state, and local law enforcement departments, including the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, to patrol Lake Erie’s border with Canada. Those patrols do not go into the Maumee River, he said.
Farther along the river, Perrysburg Township Marine Patrol conducts boat inspections and issues citations to boaters within the township.
The Toledo Police Department used to patrol the city’s waterways too, but no longer has the funding to do so.
Keeping people safe
Agencies contacted by The Blade dismissed the assessment that they are stopping boaters too frequently, insisting they are merely out on the water to keep people safe.
Mr. Atkinson said the sheriff’s unit spends most of its time on the lake conducting safety checks and responding to emergencies, and issued just one citation on the Maumee last year. Other agencies, he said, may be the possible source of the problem.
“We’re not out there to ruin the good time. We’re there to serve these boaters. We want to make sure it’s safe for them,” Mr. Atkinson said. But, he added, “The people who are out there intoxicated and think we are just out there to play games, I’m sorry. If you’re out there and intoxicated and violating the law, then you’re going to be subject to be stopped.”
Mr. German of the ODNR said his office usually has one patrol boat out on the waters of Lucas and Wood counties on a typical summer weekend. Officers will stop boaters for violations such as traveling too fast in a no-wake zone, failing to put lights on at night, or allowing passengers to sit on precarious parts of the vessel, Mr. German said.
ODNR also conducts safety inspections — to make sure enough life jackets are on board, for example — but officers usually don’t stop boats for these checks unless they have committed a visible violation, he added.
“We want to keep the boaters out there protected,” Mr. German said. “With our mission for boating safety, we’re out there to make sure everyone has an enjoyable experience, and we want to make sure everybody comes back the next day.”
Mr. German said department officials meet frequently with other agencies to coordinate patrol schedules and ensure there is not an overconcentration of law enforcement in one area. He said boats that are inspected are also issued either papers or a sticker that they can show to officers if they are stopped again.
Officers from the Maumee Bay office made contact with 15,594 boats last year in the eight-county area they serve. Contacts can include stopping boats for violations and also answering boater questions, helping someone in distress, or conducting a safety inspection, Mr. Atkinson said. Officers inspected 884 boats, 240 of which had deficiencies, the director added.
PO Jason Winders of the Toledo Coast Guard station did not have figures on the number of boats that had been stopped by his agency but insisted that only a few were stopped by his agency in downtown Toledo last year.
However, his station does conduct training sessions for its officers in the downtown area, and that could give boaters the impression that too many Coast Guard boats are out at once.
“It could be possible that the public is perceiving our training mission as though we’re blocking the whole river,” Mr. Winders said. “We’re not targeting the downtown area.”
The Coast Guard does stop boats for violations and also for random safety inspections, Officer Winders said. Officers will ask boaters they stop for safety checks whether they already have been inspected before boarding the boat, he said.
“A lot of times, unless we see something obviously wrong, we’d just say ‘good day’ and let them go on,” he said.
But boating leaders, such as Commodore Frank Scarlato of the Maumee River Yacht Club and Commodore Charlie Scott of the Toledo Yacht Club, say they believe more coordination is needed between the various enforcement patrols so that boaters aren’t repeatedly stopped. They said their members complain repeatedly that they are targeted too many times and are cited for minor infractions.
“Lots of people have been telling me they’re not going down the river. That cuts out The Docks and everything down there,” Mr. Scott said. “They don’t want to be boarded by one agency and then all of a sudden 500 feet up the water they’re getting boarded by another.”
Mr. Scarlato called the enforcement on the river “out of control.” He said agency representatives promised at the meetings last year to be more respectful of boaters’ concerns, but he hasn’t seen any changes. He’s still waiting to see what this season will bring.
“They say that they’re going to back off, but they don’t. There are so many on the river. It’s a waster of taxpayer money,” Mr. Scarlato said. “We used to just cruise down [to The Docks] in an afternoon just to maybe have lunch or an hors d’oeuvre, just for a boat ride, and you don’t want to do that so much anymore. You’re not out on the water as much.”
Those kinds of statements worry Toledo officials, who for years have been trying to spur economic growth in Toledo’s downtown and waterfront areas. Mayor Bell’s office will continue to press the issue of alleged overenforcement this summer, Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
“I think everybody supports safe boating and safe entertainment on the water, but there’s a point at which we need to be coordinated with the approach to safety so we’re not harassing people,” Ms. Sorgenfrei said. “This is an economic development issue for us. We want people to come downtown and feel this is a friendly place.”
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272