(WSVN) - The surge in migrants on South Florida shores is raising a new question: who is responsible for the hundreds of boats left behind? Karen Hensel has the surprising answer in tonight’s 7 Investigates.

Key Colony Beach is a quaint community, population just 778. The small city — nestled near Marathon — calls itself “The Gem of the Florida Keys.”

Sue Bartkus, homeowner: “I was sitting having coffee, looking out at the ocean. My granddaughter came running upstairs and said, ‘Did you see what’s out in front?'”

Out in front, last week …

Jack Bartkus, homeowner: “They told me I had a Cuban boat. I came down and I saw the boat, and I saw the property was littered with clothes and blankets, and across the street there were backpacks and shoes.”

Jack and Sue Bartkus called the police.

Jack Bartkus: “And the police then told me that they thought there would be about 20 people that rode on this boat from Cuba, and they took the people into custody, and they didn’t do anything with the boat. They left it here, and they just discarded it, so it became my problem.”

Police marked the boat “OK” in bright orange spray paint, meaning no one was left on board.

Then came a visit from the city’s code enforcement officer…

Jack Bartkus: “The code enforcement officer told me it was up to me to clean and sterilize the boat. There’s diesel fuel on there. I mean, you can’t have an oil spill, and to have this thing floating around out in the water, it’s unsafe for other people.”

And if the boat is “allowed” to drift out to sea? That could result in a felony charge.

Sue Bartkus: “He said, ‘Well, if it goes out there, I’m going to consider it a push off your part.’ I said ‘Really?’ I mean, so you’re just supposed to let it destroy your pier, your docks, your sea walls, and you’re supposed to have to get rid of it?”

Karen Hensel: “It might surprise you — but the answer is yes. When migrants make landfall and leave a boat behind on private property, Florida Fish and Wildlife confirmed to 7 Investigates, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to take care of it.”

Jack Bartkus: “It’s unfair. Totally unfair. But of course, now the cost of all of this is on me.”

Abandoned migrant boats have become such a big problem, in December, Key Colony Beach officials drafted this letter outlining the law to residents.

It says property owners have to wait 60 days to find the boat owner before towing, but unregistered migrant boats “are effectively abandoned as soon [as] they make landfall.”

Bottom line: “If any vessel ends up on your private property [it] becomes your problem. This rule of law is both inconvenient and a bit expensive, but it is the law.”

Sue Bartkus: “It’s a very frustrating situation.”

Frustrating for Jack and Sue because it cost them $2,500 to remove the boat, but it could have been more.

Sue Bartkus: “The guy from City Hall said, ‘Now, if you let any of that oil or gas spill into the water now you’re going to have to pay for an environmental cleanup.’ I mean, really, who’s responsible for all this? It shouldn’t be me.”

Migrant landings in the Keys have skyrocketed 350% from a year ago. More than 800 people made it to land in just the last two weeks.

Sue Bartkus: “There’s nobody that deserves asylum more than the Cuban people. And I’m happy to have them be here. I just don’t want to foot the bill for them.”

Jack Bartkus: “I don’t think they should leave it on the homeowner. I mean, they’re the ones that are offering refuge to the people. They should also take care of everything that goes along with it.”

After our story aired, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said in a tweet the state will now remove migrant vessels abandoned on private property for free — and provided a phone number for reporting them: 888-404-3922.


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