Charlotte Observer
12:06 pm
Thu April 4, 2013

N.C. Recreational Boaters May See Higher Registration Fees

5/28/12 - Boaters enjoy the weather while gathered at the sandbar area of Lake Norman during Memorial Day.
Credit David T. Foster III / Charlotte Observer

  A national advocacy group for recreational boaters is fighting a Senate bill in Raleigh that would hike registration fees for recreational boats statewide to pay for dredging inlets at the coast.

The bill would make a three-year registration in North Carolina more expensive than in Virginia and South Carolina for boats of any size, said Margaret Bonds Podlich, president of Boat U.S. Yet the bill calls for no increase on commercial fishing boats or for-hire charter fishing boats, she said.

Now, recreational boats of all sizes cost $15 per year to renew the registration, or $40 for a three-year sticker.

Under Senate Bill 58, the registration fees would go up for all recreational boats, and would introduce a tiered system based on boat length. The cheapest three-year sticker would be $45 for boats less than 14 feet. The most expensive three-year registration would be $450 for a boat more than 40 feet.

Bonds Podlich said the percentage increases are high: A 20-foot recreational boat would be $150 for three years, a jump of 275 percent. The increase for a boat over 40 feet is 1,025 percent, she said.

“It’s a serious financial burden to be placed just on recreational boaters,” said Nicole Palya Wood, a lobbyist for Boat U.S, which has about 12,000 members in North Carolina and about a half-million nationwide. It’s unfair, she said, to make boaters on Lake Norman and elsewhere “pay for something they’ll never use.”

About 41,000 boats are registered in Catawba, Iredell, Lincoln and Mecklenburg counties, which claim parts of Lake Norman, the state’s largest manmade lake.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Harry Brown, R-Jacksonville, told the Observer the bill “is still a work in progress” and that he’s considering having the bill also pay for dredging projects at lakes in the state. The goal is to raise $6 million for dredging projects through the fee increase, he said.

For years, Brown said, the federal government paid to dredge shallow coastal inlets that filled with silt but has now put the financial burden on the state.

“I’m pretty dang conservative and hate a fee increase like anyone else,” Brown said Wednesday. “But it’s almost got to be a user fee in this case.”

The bill, he said, requires coastal counties to match dollar-for-dollar whatever proceeds they receive from the fee increase to dredge inlets.

While critics of the bill cite startling percentage increases, he said, the actual dollar increases are relatively low. For owners of 15- to 19-foot recreational boats, for instance, the increase amounts to only $10 per year, he said. The increase would be higher on larger boats that tend to use the inlets more, he said.

Brown said boaters from every county in the state are on the coast during the prime summer boating season and that dredging of inlets makes navigation safer. Regardless, he said, “I think it’s pretty shortsighted” for residents of one end of the state to criticize having to help fund projects on the other end, projects from which everyone benefits.

The Lake Norman Marine Commission, which sets various rules on the lake, isn’t in a position to take a stance on the issue, Executive Director Ron Shoultz said.

But Shoultz, a former marine commissioner who lives on Lake Norman in Iredell County and owns a recreational boat, said he agrees “100 percent that recreational boaters shouldn’t have to foot the bill for a commercial activity” such as dredging.

Boat U.S. also supports coastal dredging projects, Palya Wood said, but opposes making one segment of boaters pay for them. The organization wants Brown to consider other funding sources, such as the sales tax on boats. Those revenues now go entirely to the state’s general fund, Palya Wood said.

Brown said he is looking into whatever other funding sources might be available, including the tax motorists pay at the pump to fill up their cars.

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