Governor signs law to simplify removal of abandoned boats


Abandoned homes have been the focus of efforts to combat urban blight amid record foreclosures and an economy in recession, but what happens when the abandoned property is out at sea?

A new law, signed by Gov. Deval Patrick on Friday, aims to answer that question, as coastal cities and towns, as well as private property owners, grapple with increasing abandonment of boats, seaplanes and rafts they say causes public safety and environmental hazards and mars the landscape.

The new law permits harbormasters or private property owners to claim a boat after certifying it has been abandoned for at least 90 days. If a subsequent search for the owner by environmental police, using serial numbers and license plates, turns up nothing – or if the owner is found and indicates he doesn’t want the vessel – the person who claimed it becomes its titleholder, under the new law, and may remove, destroy or sell the vessel.

Thomas Vital, assistant harbormaster for New Bedford, said that prior to the new law, removing an abandoned boat could take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars for cities and towns.

“They were using New Bedford as the dump,” he said. “All we had was a pile of derelicts.”

As for the new law, he said, “Hopefully, we’ll have a tool so we can act quicker.”

Over the past four years, Vital said, New Bedford removed 18 abandoned vessels on public waterways at a cost of $17,000 to $20,000 each. Wooden vessels, he noted, are often considered hazardous because of oil that has leached into the frame. Steel vessels, he noted, had value as scrap metal.

According to a statement from Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), the sponsor of the original proposal, the Department of Conservation and Recreation currently has responsibility to remove abandoned vessels but often lacks funding to clear public waterways. Abandoned vessels at docks “occupy valuable berths” and sometimes become “havens for illicit activities,” according to the statement.

The statement describes the bill as “the result of extensive negotiations between the state, municipalities, boat owners, financiers and insurers and balances ownership interests against the desire for quick removal of maritime hazards.”

The bill began moving late in the session, clearing the House Committee on Ways and Means on July 29 and winning final passage from lawmakers during informal sessions on Aug. 5.

The law establishes a $10,000 penalty for anyone who “willfully abandons a vessel” and a $1,000 fine for anyone who attempts to obtain title to a vessel “through fraudulent means.”