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With U.S. Boat Sales Booming,
Slips Are Scarce, and Pricey
By JUNE FLETCHER
(FROM THE ARCHIVES: May 9, 2003)


Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL



Gary and Gerri Davis just bought a $500,000 house in Naples, Fla., with three bedrooms, a pool and a view of the bay. But what they really wanted was out back -- a deep-water dock.

"It was my only prayer for a spot on the water," says Mr. Davis, policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who'd searched long and hard for a home for Second Wind, his 31-foot sailboat. These days, some of America's priciest real estate isn't even on dry land. Despite the economy, the price of a boat slip has grown by an average of 20% over the past two years. In places like Southwest Florida, they've almost doubled, to as much as $775,000 -- or almost three times what the average home in the area goes for. And it's not only oceanfront parking that's gotten expensive: One Michigan man recently tried to peddle his slip on eBay with a minimum bid of $12,500. On Lake Huron.

Partly it's just a case of supply and demand -- there are now a record 80 million boaters on America's waterways. But new environmental laws have also slowed marina development. These days, building a new spot to park boats can require permits from as many as 27 different governmental agencies, and even upgrading an old one can be tough. Leslie Campbell, manager of the Salmon Bay Marina in Seattle, says the marina applied last fall for a permit that would have allowed it to add 20 slips. It finally came through on April 15 -- two days before all building had to stop to let the salmon run. Then there are the fancy new "dockominiums," which can handle just a handful of big luxury yachts in spaces once reserved for a fleet of smaller boats.


Capuccino and Oil Paintings


Some marinas justify high costs with extra service and amenities. At the Chinook Landing Marina on Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., all 219 slips have been filled, and there's a waiting list -- even though rents went up 10% two years ago and are scheduled to go up that much again this year. But then, the Puyallup Indian tribe, which owns the place, offers cable TV, laundry facilities, showers, a capuccino bar, and even $600 Native American oil paintings. And at the Pleasant Harbor marina on Arizona's Lake Pleasant, dock hands gas up and clean boats for renters paying as much as $1,520 a month. "We do everything but clean your fish," says Steve Walker, the assistant manager.

But the bare-bones approach is a lot more common. The Seneca Lake, N.Y., marina where Dave Galleher pays to park his 23-foot powerboat doesn't have dining pavilions or gas grills -- never mind a picnic table or a shower. "When I want to get clean, I jump in the lake," he says.

Of course, the cost of a slip has always been one of the downsides of owning a boat. But while the supply of boat slips has stayed more or less steady over the past decade, the number of boats grew by 300,000 in the past two years alone, according to Boat US, the country's largest recreational boat-owners' association. And like many other things these days, watercraft have been supersized, with the average boat now coming in at more than 27 feet long (too big to fit easily on a trailer) and with a price tag of $55,000. The high cost of yacht parking comes as a shock to many new boat buyers, says Andrew Canepari, who runs an online boatslip-matching service called sliphunt.com. "They don't expect to pay that when they've already spent a fortune on a boat."


Living On Board

But it's not just boat owners who are annoyed. The jump in slip prices has led some people -- especially retirees or singles who live on board -- to simply moor their boats offshore. But that means waterfront towns are having to add things like public trash drop-offs and sewer hookups to handle the waste that marinas usually take care of, but without the rental fees. And folks with waterfront homes complain about the constant presence of boats -- not to mention the flotsam they can generate. Indeed, Florida homeowner Thomas Campbell says he's been fishing everything from gasoline cans to coolers out of the water lately.

Still, not everyone's grumbling about the high cost of boat parking space. Two years ago, Newport, Calif., entrepreneur Sean Acosta started a company to rent out unused backyard docks (homeowners in that town pay $80 a year in taxes and fees even if they don't have a boat). Now, he's got more than 200 under lease, with rents running as high as $3,050 a month (for one that can accommodate an 85-foot yacht) -- and, he says, he's got at least 20 applicants for each available slip. "There will never be enough supply," Mr. Acosta says.
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