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Vero Marina falls into sad state of disrepair


The Vero Beach Municipal Marina, which provides a first impression of the city for thousands of visitors every year, has fallen into a sad state of disrepair.

Many boaters said it is poorly maintained, resulting in shabby, unsafe conditions, with rotting wood, patchwork repairs, piles of scrap lumber and a heap of rusting bicycles – all of which could cause a lot more than a bad first impression, as soon as someone gets hurt and decides to sue the city.

A number of permanent marina residents, experienced boaters familiar with municipal marinas up and down the east coast, claim attempts to get action on their safety and maintenance concerns are often ignored or rebuffed.

Far from the gleaming, shipshape facility one might expect in Vero Beach, they said the municipal marina is among the worst maintained in the state. Asking to remain anonymous for fear of getting hassled or “thrown out,” they provided a laundry list of complaints, and pointed out potential dangers resulting from what they see as lackadaisical management.  

To take a first-hand look and get a fair picture of the situation, Vero Beach 32963 has visited the marina – which is located on the island about a quarter of a mile north of the Barber Bridge – several times in recent weeks.

The park-like grounds are graced by beautiful oaks, but an overflowing wooden trash container, overturned plastic chairs and nearby wooden kayak ramp with its slice of soggy carpet are grungy and uninviting.

On each visit, we found lumber and pieces of what appeared to be drywall cluttered against the walls of the two-story wooden building that houses a laundromat, TV lounge, restrooms, showers, and, according to a source, a private residence upstairs.

Especially conspicuous, heaped beside a storage shed at the rear of the building adjacent to the marina park and picnic area, was a pile of beat-up bicycles that had obviously been rusting there for quite a while. Several more bikes, most looking weathered and abandoned, were crowded into a rack nearby and a few more lay rusting in other locations on the property. 

Rotting wood is in evidence everywhere.  Clusters of sharp shells cake the bottom rungs of dock ladders, and many of the dock bumpers have torn loose.

One source described haphazard repairs to a large hole in the tile wall of one of the men's restroom stalls: The damaged area covered most of the rear wall in one stall and part of another, and appeared to have been hastily, and partially, patched with plywood, leaving gaping holes.

Resident boaters said the docks are dangerously slippery, unsteady in many places, with few effective skid pads, and they claim the marina doesn't have the required number of safety ladders along the docks.

“The Bahamas Waterway Guide guy just recently fell and hit his kneecap,” said a source. Another related a recent incident in which a resident boat-owner slipped on her dock, and tumbled into the water next to her boat. With no ladder on her stretch of dock, she couldn't pull herself out.

Fortunately, there were neighbors nearby, who dragged her to the main dock and hauled her to safety, but not before she had sustained a nasty gash on her arm. “The only docks I've seen in Florida in worse shape are in Tarpon Springs,” said one resident. 

Overly-easy access to the marina's facilities, sources said, makes problems worse by overloading capacity and inviting trouble. Much of the main building isn't locked, and many of the existing locks don't work.

Several apparently homeless individuals regularly sleep in the lounge, a resident said. “We're up early to go to work, come in here for coffee, and there are two guys sleeping, there's a homeless guy who lives in his car and he showers here . . . and there's a nice lady who sleeps on the bench and also showers here.” 

Said another source, “There's a guy in a Mercedes, he comes here, uses the laundry room in the morning.” Another boater said he and his wife don't use the marina laundry anymore “because we can never get in.” Yet another agreed. “People use the facilities here who don't belong. Why pay to be on a mooring if others don't pay and have the same stuff? I feel like a chump.”

Sources pointed to an area on the east side of the marina where several camping trailers are parked. “What is it with all the trailers? Who knows who they belong to? I think word has gotten out, 'Just come park here.' Nobody checks on nothing!”  

Yet another problem is over-use of the moorings area during the busy season: several boats “raft” – tie up to one-another – in the mooring area, or tie up to a mooring line meant for one vessel. The extra weight often causes the over-stressed line to pull free and drag. These extra boats, said the sources, don't pay, but use the facilities for free. 

When the residents asked Harbormaster Tim Grabenbauer about this, he acknowledged these boaters are “stealing,” but said they're in FIND's (Florida Inland Navigation District) jurisdiction, not his, and therefore not his problem. Had he had notified FIND, they inquired? The harbormaster told them he had not. 

This particular problem has an impact on the lagoon itself. A source said he was told the marina's pump-out vessel does not service the wrongly-moored boats. “I knew of several boats that had been there for months, and I said, 'Where do you think they're dumping their tanks?' I mean, the river is such a big deal down here, and most of the holding tanks are about 35-40 gallon; with two or three people aboard, they will last no more than a week.” 

Vero Beach 32963 brought the complaints and questions to Grabenbauer, a pleasant, easygoing individual who's been with the City for 19 years. He addressed each question, making notes as he did so.

The piles of lumber, he said, were from a construction project and would be hauled away. The accumulation of rusting bikes, however, was more puzzling. Grabenbauer explained that some are left by boaters, but many others “just come to us, we don't know whose they are or where they came from,” and he suspects some may be stolen.

So, why not just haul them off? Grabenbauer doesn't want to remove a bike too soon, in case the owner returns to claim it, or it was stolen and the police are looking for it. So, he says, “every couple years we go through them and tag them.” Then, if someone claims one, they get a sticker and after a certain period of time, if no one else claims it, they can retrieve it. He verified that he had indeed said “every couple years.”

As to the rotting wood, Grabenbauer said repairs are made in order of immediate need, and noted that, when wood is replaced, Trex board, a far more durable composite, will be used. 

A recent incident, in which an individual stepped onto the narrow walkway alongside his boat and stumbled as the wooden plank gave way, is an example of a serious accident waiting to happen while repairs are delayed, sources said.

Going down the list, Grabenbauer acknowledged that “the north restrooms are the oldest ones and definitely need to be replaced.” The south restrooms, he said, were replaced as part of the general marina spiff-up when the Nina and Pinta replicas visited last March. Originally, plans were to replace the north restrooms in 2007 – nearly 10 years ago – but the project was put on hold when the economy tanked.

Some residents claimed marina staff “spends most of its time in the office on their I-pads.” Grabenbauer staunchly defended his staff and took strong exception to the claim that the marina employees – two fulltime, including himself; two part-time; and one office temp – are shirking their duties and hanging out in the office, leaving boaters without assistance.

Grabenbauer said incoming boats can radio on approach, alerting staff if assistance is needed. Those without radios are, apparently, on their own, as occurred when a Vero Beach 32963 staffer reported struggling to dock his boat (which had no radio) unassisted.

Marina residents are told many of their complaints can't be addressed because there isn't enough money. “The mantra here is that they can't spend money because they bought that big building,” a source said. 

As an enterprise fund, the marina is expected  to operate solely on its income and it is currently staggering under the debt service on a $4.7 million loan obtained in 2007 to purchase a dry storage structure, with related equipment and floating docks, on a 1.19-acre parcel south of the Vero Beach Yacht Club. The marina will be making payments on this loan for 12 more years. 

Addressing the decision to make the $4.7 million purchase, Grabenbauer said, “We were running out of space.” If the property had been sold to a developer, he added, the marina would have had nowhere for needed expansion. 

As a city department head, Grabenbauer reports directly to City Manager Jim O'Connor at weekly department meetings.

Asked if he gets over to the marina much, O'Connor said he visits on occasion, mostly when a ”large boat” comes in, when he goes aboard to greet the captain and welcome him to the city. He acknowledged the marina's tight budget does preclude a lot of upgrading and, although he still views the decision to purchase the dry-storage facility as a wise one, he admitted, “Maybe we overdid it a little.”

O'Connor wants the marina to be seen as a friendly, inviting place, but some marina residents are frustrated and don't see things getting better. “This used to be a premier stop in Florida, and now it's going to c--p!” said one. 

Grabenbauer said his Harbormaster pals call him “Mr. Bombproof,” because nothing appears to bother him, and in some cases that's not a bad thing. 

But maybe now it’s time for somebody in charge to get “bothered.”
If nothing much changes until the debt service is paid off 12 years from now, it will probably be too late. It shouldn't take a visit from the Nina and Pinta to get the marina looking ship shape. Vero Beach and every boater who lives there or visits deserve it just as much.