The Florida Inland Navigation District has helped move and manage muck from the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway back to President Calvin Coolidge’s days in office.
The taxing district and its federal partners took over an unkempt toll waterway in 1927, and FIND has played Florida’s keeper of the Intracoastal since. Its top duty remains securing storage areas for sludge after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scoops it from the navigation channel.
But in 80-odd years, FIND has evolved into more than just dredge-and-dump managers. Its lighthouse logo — and taxpayers’ dollars — regularly pop up in various boating pamphlets and Intracoastal odd jobs, such as manatee zone low-speed signs, a dog park, riverside boardwalks and boat ramps.
The agency also hasn’t been free of controversy.
At least twice, state legislators have called for FIND’s elimination, and officials have urged FIND to scrap its tax. A 1980s FIND commissioner even claimed the board’s top concerns were golf, cocktails and fancy dinners.
FIND’s roots trace back to the 1920s, when Henry Flagler’s railroad essentially put a private 15-year-old toll canal along the Atlantic out of business. Floridians still wanted access to the waterway, so federal officials agreed to spearhead the project with the help of a state agency — FIND — which would buy the existing canal and acquire surrounding land to expand it and to store dredged mud.
For years, officials dug the channel deeper, wider and longer from Jacksonville to Miami. FIND continued providing the Army Corps places to store dredged materials in and along the channel — like spoil islands — at a cost to taxpayers no more than $1 per $1,000 assessed property value, the FIND website said.
Then in 1965, according to a Miami News story, FIND dropped a proposed tax — which would have been the first in 15 years — after an audit revealed questionable spending. In the previous 13 years, FIND had spent only $75,209 on rights-of-way and spoil acquisition, while $528,750 went toward salaries and other fees.
The Legislature then limited the district’s taxing rate to 10 cents per $1,000 assessed property value.
The next year, a Dade County state senator unsuccessfully pushed a bill to abolish the district. Instead, the state Cabinet approved FIND’s request to reinstitute its property tax, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
From 1970 to 1986, FIND didn’t levy a tax and used only taxpayer money in the bank, said FIND
Executive Director David Roach. In 1984, another audit of the previous five years revealed the district spent $721,523 — $519,457 in administrative, legal and travel expenses — and only acquired one major land tract, according to a Miami Herald report.
Then Indian River County FIND Commissioner Joe Earman told the Palm Beach Post in 1984 that in his commission, “nothing happened except cocktail parties, side trips, golf matches or dinner.” State Rep. Dale Patchett, R-Vero Beach, responded by filing a bill to abolish the agency that year.
Instead of eliminating FIND, the Legislature gave it more responsibility, a move Patchett approved. In 1985, the Legislature tasked the district with helping fund local government projects that improve access to the waterway — like Stuart’s RiverWalk or Sebastian Inlet’s pier.
“The Legislature said, ‘Listen, you guys need to do something,’” Roach said. “‘It’s great you’re not levying a tax, but come on.’”
By 1987, FIND spent the $5 million left in the bank on the projects, and realized it required more land to dump dredged material, a Miami Herald report said. The district no longer could use or create spoil islands because of evolving environmental laws, Roach said.
So FIND introduced its first tax since 1970, charging property owners less than 7 cents per $1,000 assessed value. To date, FIND has secured land to process sediment about every six miles along the 400-mile Intracoastal, Roach said.
State lawmakers in 1995 expanded the district’s duties further. The district took over silt storage duties for the Okeechobee Waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Gulf Coast’s inland waterways.
Now with federal dollars dwindling, Roach said FIND’s role in paying for Intracoastal maintenance will continue to increase.
“It’s just gotten worse and worse, where today, they get zero from the federal government, and we’re having to contribute the full amount to maintain the project,” Roach said.
1927: To deepen, widen and operate the Intracoastal Waterway toll-free, the Legislature created Florida Inland Navigation District to work with federal partners by purchasing the 15-year-old Coast Line Canal, its surrounding lands and rights-of-way.
1931: Legislature limited FIND’s taxing power to $1 per $1,000 assessed property value.
1941: Legislature authorized FIND to deepen the waterway to 12 feet from the St. Marys River on the Georgia state border to the St. Johns River.
1944: A bill in Congress gave FIND authority over $11.8 million to deepen the waterway further from Jacksonville to Miami. It also allocated $1.83 million to deepen the waterway from Miami to Key West.
1965: FIND dropped a proposed tax after audits showed it spent $75,209 on rights-of-way and spoil sites over the previous 13 years, compared to $528,750 on salaries and fees, the Miami News reported. A state senator also unsuccessfully pushed a bill to eliminate FIND. The Legislature limited FIND’s potential taxing power to 10 cents per $1,000 assessed property values. It also said FIND commissioners would be appointed by the governor, instead of locally elected.
1966: The state Cabinet approved reinstating FIND’s property tax — the first in 15 years.
1970-1986:FIND did not levy a tax, and operated off interest on money in the bank.
1985: The Legislature tasked FIND with helping local governments with projects concerning navigation, waterway access facilities, boating safety, recreation and environmental education.
1987: FIND reinstitutes a property tax. Commissioners used the money for additional land buying along the Intracoastal.
1990: Legislature gave FIND management over installing low-speed boating signs for manatee zones.
1995: Legislature ruled that FIND should be continued, and gave FIND responsibility over dredged material from the Okeechobee Waterway, which connects the Intracoastal waterways on the east and west coasts.
2006: A spill at a FIND dredged material management facility in St. Johns County covered 54 acres of wetlands with arsenic-laden mud.
2007: FIND handed manatee sign installation duties to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Sources: FIND records, Miami Herald, Miami News, Palm Beach Post and St. Petersburg Times archives