Boater safety law on the horizon for Suffolk County waters

10/06/2012 10:00 AM |

SONJA REINHOLT DERR FILE PHOTO | A boater safety bill approved by the Suffolk Legislature aims at reducing on-the-water mishaps, such as when the driver of this powerboat ran up on the Greenport Harbor jetty two summers ago.

Legislation aimed at making Suffolk County waters safer will likely be signed by County Executive Steve Bellone next week, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bellone said Wednesday.

But some local businessmen are hoping Mr. Bellone will reconsider, saying the boater safety bill needs to be rewritten to avoid harming the regional marine industry.

The proposed law, which county legislators passed unanimously on Sept. 13, would require all Suffolk residents to pass an approved boater’s safety course before operating some pleasure boats in Suffolk waters. The law would not apply to rowboats, canoes or kayaks.

“At this point in time it is our intention to sign the legislation,” said the spokeswoman, Vanessa Baird-Streeter, adding there could be a public signing of the legislation late next week. “We want to ensure that Suffolk County waters are safe and that those who are boating understand boating safety. The boating safety certificate for Suffolk County residents will only help to ensure safe travel on our waterways.”

But Captain Joe Frohnhoefer, owner of Southold-based Sea Tow International, which offers towing and other services for boaters in distress, said he worries that the bill could hurt the marine industry and the sale of boats and would be impossible to enforce in such a short time.

“Education is important, but you’re looking at 18 months to train thousands of people and the state doesn’t have the time or the money to get the personnel and materials to do that,” Mr. Frohnhoefer said. He added that he knows several people interested in filing legal challenges if the measure is enacted.

“The bill is kind of discriminatory as it only requires Suffolk County residents to apply for certification, though boaters from Maine, Florida and other states also boat in Suffolk County waters in the summer,” he said.

Alex Galasso, the owner of Larry’s Lighthouse Marina in Aquebogue, said the law is a “bit vague.” He agrees with Captain Frohnhoefer that it carries the potential to chase boaters from local waters.

“This legislation requires Suffolk County residents to get safety certification but not people from outside of the area,” Mr. Galasso said. “So people who know the local waters will need certification, but not people from outside of the area?”

A spokesman for Legislator Steven Stern (D-Huntington), the bill’s sponsor, said he hopes the state will follow the county’s lead and enact a statewide measure.

He noted that neighboring states already require boating licenses.

“If you’re coming from other states, especially New Jersey or Connecticut, you’re OK because you’ve probably gone above and beyond what we’re asking for,” said the spokesman, Brian Galgano. “You don’t need to have a boater’s license in New York like you do in those states.”

Mr. Galgano said the law would not take effect until a year after it’s signed. That would give the Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons and similar organizations offering safe-boating courses that meet the standards set by the National Association of Boating Law Administrators time to “get everyone on board” and receive necessary safety certification.

Mr. Frohnhoefer insisted that a year is still too short a time.

North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said although the bill’s purpose is laudable and valuable, the county may be preempting the state’s authority.

The executive’s office disagrees. “The legislation clearly states it is over Suffolk County residents having to do with Suffolk County waters,” Ms. Baird-Streeter said.

Mr. Stern said he has “every confidence” that the law would be upheld if challenged. “It’s important to keep in mind that it’s a reasonable, bipartisan legislative initiative that was passed unanimously.”

gvolpe@timesreview.com