Editorial: Suffolk lawmakers should dry dock boat bill

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Boaters enjoying a day out on the Peconic Bay last summer.
TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Boaters enjoying a day out on the Peconic Bay last summer.

Back in the 1970s, the Suffolk County Legislature passed landmark legislation banning laundry detergents containing phosphates, which were blamed for causing foaming on surface waters. At the time it was considered cutting-edge environmental protection, but reality never matched the hype.

Residents in the densely populated western townships, where water quality problems were said to be most acute, simply drove across the county line into Nassau to buy detergents that worked far better than the replacements Suffolk law permitted. The issue resolved itself when detergent companies updated their formulas and dropped the compounds Suffolk had banned.

Over the years county lawmakers also attempted to regulate the use of video display monitors, the computer screens that predate today’s flat panel models, in the workplace and to impose tough new pesticide application limits. In both cases, the laws were struck down. In both cases, the Legislature had overstepped its limits.

The lawmakers may have been well within their authority last year in passing legislation requiring boaters to earn safety certificates before leaving the dock. But the knee-jerk reaction to a boating fatality was just as off the mark as those earlier bills and served only to churn up mud rather than chart a course to safer boating.

The law’s biggest flaw is a sin of omission in specifying who is required to take an 11-hour course and pass an exam to earn the right to cruise out on the water. Suffolk residents, even those who may have been boating all their lives and know local waters well, must take the ridiculously long course and pass the test. Meanwhile, nonresidents, even those who may never have set foot in a boat before, are exempt.

The bill passed by an 18-0 vote, which means the full Legislature, and County Executive Steve Bellone, who signed the measure into law, either failed to recognize or were unmoved by the obvious — and potentially dangerous — contradiction.

While the return of summer weather has the new safety regulations on the minds of many boaters, the good news is there’s no need to panic since the law won’t take effect until the next boating season.

In response to former Times/Review publisher Troy Gustavson’s column calling for a written “boat operator’s test,” county comptroller Joseph Sawicki of Southold recently wrote to county Legislator Steve Stern (D-Huntington), the bill’s sponsor, asking him to take a second look at the law. We hope Mr. Stern and his colleagues will do just that — look past the emotion that fueled its passage and come up with a logical and workable alternative. Including all boaters and trimming the requirement down to an operator’s test is a good place to start.

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