Marina approval process difficult, not impossible
By April M. Havens
When condominium buyers think of South Florida they assume a boater's paradise where there's always space to park a boat, but regulations on new marina construction have helped to dry up the availability of boat slips, experts say.
During a down condo market, marinas become a selling point, and developers are looking to cash in on the popular amenity, but the process of approval for these residential marina projects can prove time consuming and expensive — that is, if it can be done at all.
Brad Hunter, regional director for housing market research firm Metrostudy, said marinas "definitely add value to residential condo projects."
"Marinas are a very sought after amenity, and there is somewhat of a shortage throughout the state," Mr. Hunter said.
Real estate agents agree.
"The market is hard, and at the moment, with or without a marina option, it is hard to sell a condo, but if a client can get a marina slip, that adds tremendous value," said Adanna Becker, associate with Aqua Blue Realty.
"When people want to buy a vacation home in Miami, they think boat docks should be easily available, but there are less and less and customers are really shocked sometimes to find they are not accessible."
Just listing a marina as a future possibility "perks the interest of a potential buyer," Ms. Becker said. Boat-loving buyers will more readily sign contracts that specify they will have first opportunity to purchase boat slips if and when a marina is approved and built, she said.
Fernando Levy Hara, principal of G&D Developers for Regatta 2 in North Miami Beach, said all of his marketing has revolved around a marina.
"It gives your marketing uniqueness and gives extra value to the overall project because it is much easier to sell a building on the Intracoastal if you have a marina," he said. "It gives new life to the building."
Mr. Hara's permitting process to get an 18-slip marina approved has taken 18 months. The Regatta 2 site, however, has historic use as a marina.
"We did research on what rights we were already granted there," Mr. Hara said. "You just cannot get new permits for marinas on properties without marinas already."
While Mr. Hara says it's impossible, state, county and federal officials say it's only nearly impossible.
Developers must apply to three entities before rebuilding a damaged marina or constructing a new one: the US Army Corps of Engineers, Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Each must approve the project before it can move forward, and permitting takes six months to more than a year.
Lee Hefty, chief of the Environmental Resources Regulation Division at the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management, said his department works with applicants to help them get the right permits, not prevent projects from reaching fruition.
"But if there hasn't been an existing use at the site, it's difficult to get that approval from the state, county and Corps of Engineers," he said, though each project is handled on a case-by-case basis.
A developer must have permission to use the submerged land before the Department of Environmental Resources Management proceeds, Mr. Hefty said. The submerged land used for a marina, though sometimes privately held, is typically state-owned, and the developer often leases that land from the state if the project is approved. The department receives 400-600 applications for marina-related projects a year, he said.
Georgia Vince, southeast district environmental administrator for the Environmental Resources Program at the Florida Department of Environment Protection, said that in Miami-Dade County, the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve influences which projects get approved.
The preserve covers about 69,000 acres of state submerged land and is divided into two sections. The northern preserve area is bordered on the east by Miami Beach, Fisher Island, Virginia Key and Key Biscayne and on the west by the mainland shore and Miami central business district. The southern area includes the Card Sound, between the southeast mainland of Florida and the northern end of Key Largo.
"With the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, the intent is… to preserve natural conditions so its biological and aesthetic conditions can be preserved," Ms. Vince said. The department considers the design of the marina, environmental resources such as sea grass habitats, corals and sponges, water quality impacts and endangered species. The impact a new construction will have on the area is carefully considered, and it's getting harder to have marina projects approved, Ms. Vince said.
"New uses on the bay have to meet criteria called extreme hardship, which is defined as a significant burden unique to the applicant and not shared by property owners in the area," she said. "Basically, it has been very difficult for new marinas to meet the extreme hardship requirement."
But, if a developer can provide evidence of historical use, where perhaps a marina existed before but was damaged during a hurricane, permits are easier to obtain. "A lot of the marinas that were damaged by storms have applied and are receiving permits," Ms. Vince said. "And emergency orders allow marinas to rebuild in a reasonable amount of time after storm damage."
But from the state's perspective on historical use sites, Ms. Vince said, if the department hasn't received an application by now, "we are probably in a gray area."
While it's not impossible for the state to approve some projects in some circumstances, "the burden of proof is on the applicant," Ms. Vince said.
When a developer applies to the state, Ms. Vince said, the application is automatically forwarded to the Army Corps of Engineers. Myrna Lopez, acting chief of the south branch permit section, said the Corps submits coordination letters to resource agencies and wildlife preservation organizations to seek their recommendations on each project.
"We clear all endangered species, historic property, submerged aquatic vegetation and navigation or safety hazard concerns," Ms. Lopez said. "But the complexity of the evaluation is less if there was a pre-existing marina at the site."
The Corps of Engineers approval process can take six months to a year, Ms. Lopez said.
Inigo Ardid, principal of 400 Sunny Isles, a condo development that is to include a marina with up to 250 boat slips, said it was fairly easy to have his permits renewed.
"Basically, they allow existing marinas to stay in business and actually encourage it, but to make new marinas is very difficult," Mr. Ardid said.
Mr. Ardid said the marina has been a major selling point, and his unit owners applaud the boat slip option. Owners will probably buy up all the slips, he said, but if they aren't all sold he will open sales to the public.