Waterfront Woes

In need of dock repairs?

Murray Shatt October 4, 2012

The Florida peninsula is surrounded by water, which means there are literally hundreds of miles of Intracoastal Waterway, canals and lagoons meandering their way around most of the state. With this waterfront property comes more residential dock space than any other state in the country. The vast majority of these backyard docks were originally constructed of concrete and pressure treated lumber. Over time they are susceptible to wear and deterioration from heavy use and harsh environmental factors like the relentless sun, corrosive saltwater, powerful waves and torrential rains.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Take a look down any canal and you’ll see that many docks are in need of repair, some more so than others. If you are one of these waterfront homeowners who have come to the realization that it’s time to spruce up your dock before someone falls through it, there are some important issues you need to be aware of. While you can certainly handle a re-decking project on your own—the most popular do-it-yourself dock repair—major upgrades and retrofits require a contractor with the right tools and the necessary skills to get the job done right.

First and foremost, interview at least three contractors before making a final decision. Demand to see copies of their state and county contractor’s licenses. You can also look up the status of a contractor with the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation (myfloridalicense.com). It’s also important you make sure the contractor is a member of the Florida Marine Contractors Association (myfmca.org). Hiring an unlicensed contractor will leave you with no recourse if the work does not comply with city code or is unsafe. You will also be held liable for injured workers and fines for aiding and abetting unlicensed contracting. One of the contractors may be the cheapest guy on the block for a reason.

State certified contractors are licensed to work anywhere within state boundaries, which means you will be protected against monetary loss by the Florida Homeowners’ Construction Recovery Fund. This is a fund of last resort and is administered by the Construction Industry Licensing Board, which makes the determination of eligibility for a monetary award.

Will the contractor obtain the necessary permits? A homeowner may obtain their own permits or can use a permit-procuring firm to obtain the necessary permits, but if your contractor requires that you apply for a homeowner permit and gives you no other choice; beware! If you obtain an owner permit you may bear all liability for accidents and/or injuries on the job. Plus, with an owner permit you must perform the repairs yourself or go on to hire a properly licensed and insured contractor. You cannot hire an unlicensed contractor to do work under an owner permit and think you’ll get away with it. 

Boatlifts are a popular addition to residential docks and also require Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and municipality permits. DEP and ACOE permits may take three months to obtain and are typically valid for five years, though your municipality may have different regulations. One thing that is common is that most municipalities require DEP and ACOE permits at the time of the local permit application, which can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to process. Boatlifts require power, which means electrical permits must also be obtained.

While simple repairs to docks or seawalls will not require new ACOE and DEP permits if the dock in question is within two feet of the original permit, new docks or seawalls require sealed engineer drawings to be filed with the ACOE and DEP. Again, check with your local municipality. Depending on the nature of the work and its environmental impact, these permits can take up to a year to obtain. Mitigation fees may be assessed if your project involves damage to wetlands or protected foliage. The fees will be used to restore similar wetlands at another site. The potential fees may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.  

Make sure you ask the contractors for proof of insurance prior to signing a contract or allowing any work to be started. All contractors that pull permits are required to carry General Liability Insurance. This is to guard against liability in the event a contractor damages the homeowner’s or neighbor’s property, or the contractor injures someone other than his own employees. Licensed contractors are also required to carry Workers Compensation Insurance. Under most circumstances, if a contractor does not provide insurance for his employees and a worker is injured, the homeowner is ultimately responsible for medical expenses and may find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Marine Contractors are also required to carry United States Longshore & Harborworkers Insurance (USL&H Insurance) when doing work adjacent to navigable waters. Ask your contractor to provide you with a Certificate of Insurance stating that USL&H coverage is provided. If a barge is required for on-site piling work, Jones Act Insurance is also a must.

Will your contractor be available for follow up service or if any problems arise? Many contractors try dock work and quickly realize it’s not for them. This is exactly why you need to deal with a reputable company who is established, easy to contact and dependable. Find out how long the contractor has been in business. Ask for references from satisfied customers and check to see that they have a brick and mortar address and not just a post office box.

While interviewing numerous contractors may sound complicated and time consuming, in the long run hiring the right crew to do the job the right way is the only way to ensure you are in compliance and that you’ll get exactly what you paid for—a reliable repair or quality installation that will provide many years of trouble-free service.

A Dock for the Ages

Up until recently, pressure treated lumber has been the staple and most affordable option when it comes to decking. However, new composite planks made from recycled plastic and wood fiber provide dock owners with an environmentally friendly, sensible option. Composite planks are easy to install, weather resistant, UV resistant and the PVC material will never rot, weather or splinter. Additionally, composite planking is available in many styles and colors and typically comes with a 25-year warranty. The only caveat is that composite decking must be installed properly or you risk the material sagging—another reason to hire a skilled professional.

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