Assembly will take up mandatory boat insurance proposal

Assembly members have directed borough staff to come back with a revised ordinance setting requirements for boat owners to carry insurance on their vessels moored in Wrangell harbors.

The assembly in March questioned several aspects of a proposed ordinance forwarded by the port commission which required coverage. The assembly wanted to see a minimum vessel size to require insurance, increased management rights to keep out unseaworthy boats and exemptions for transient vessels.

The intent is to protect other boat owners and the borough from damages caused by boat fires, the cost of cleanup and disposal of abandoned boats, and the cost of raising boats that sink in the harbor.

The Port and Harbors Department spends on average $30,000 a year removing derelict vessels, according to borough officials.

After a couple of months with no further work by the port commission toward making changes to the draft insurance ordinance, the assembly at its May 28 meeting made it clear to the borough manager that they wanted to see a revised ordinance for their consideration.

“I would like to move that forward,” Assembly Member David Powell said. “I have a bad feeling if we have a fire now … it’s not going to look good for us.”

Powell was referring to a May 13 fire at Juneau’s Douglas Harbor that started on one boat and spread to two others. The blaze also damaged floats and the harbor’s electrical system. The Capital City Fire/Rescue assistant chief estimated total damages at more than $500,000.

Powell also reminded assembly members and borough staff of a 2022 Ketchikan boat fire as another example of the liability of allowing uninsured boats to tie up. The Ketchikan fire put that city at risk of a lawsuit over damages to a vessel near the uninsured burning boat.

The Wrangell Port Commission has been discussing how to craft a mandatory boat insurance ordinance since 2022 but has found the details difficult to resolve.

Borough Manager Mason Villarma told the assembly he would present them with a revised draft ordinance at the June 11 meeting, and will address the concerns members raised a couple of months ago.

The June 11 meeting would be the first reading of the proposal. If assembly members want to proceed, they would schedule a public hearing on the issue for the June 25 meeting.

If the assembly approves mandatory insurance, Villarma expects a “slow rollout” that likely would not start until fall or winter.

An ordinance requiring boat owners to provide proof of insurance would need to specify what kinds of coverage is required and the amount, such as fire, liability and salvage insurance, Villarma explained in an interview the day after the assembly meeting.

The assembly has indicated it wants to exempt smaller boats from the insurance requirement and will need to decide on the size limit for an exemption. Past discussions also have addressed the issue of giving the harbormaster the authority to deny moorage to vessels that are not fully seaworthy or maneuverable, or whether to require insurance of transient vessels that pull into the harbor for a limited stay.

The port commission had recommended an additional charge to moorage fees for boats that lack insurance, so that the borough could build up a fund to cover damages from uninsured boats.

Public testimony at previous assembly meetings on mandatory insurance has been divided, with some people saying it would be too expensive and others saying it’s needed to protect all harbor users.

 

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