MARIETTA - It's difficult enough to find dock space for smaller boats on the Muskingum River in Marietta, but parking along the riverbank can pose a much larger problem when you have a 300-passenger sternwheeler and plans to connect a barge with the capacity for 150 more riders.
That's the issue facing Valley Gem Capt. J.J. Sands, who recently asked city council members to consider leasing him extra space immediately downriver of the sternwheeler's current mooring location under the Washington Street Bridge.
But the space Sands wants to lease from the city is currently occupied by the Muskingum River Boat Docks, owned for the last three years by Dan and Shana Woodford.
"We bought the docks from the Wiblins, who owned them for 40 years, and we installed new docks, water and electricity there. We invested a lot of money," Shana Woodford said on Monday.
She said there is about 200 feet of dock space along the riverbank, just north of the Washington Street Bridge.
The dock space is rented to boaters every season for vessels that may range in size from 19 feet to 83 feet in length.
"Our docks are full now-we've had to turn people away," Woodford said.
The Woodfords pay the city $1,500 a year to lease the riverbank where their docks are located, and the most recent five-year lease expired Jan. 1 of this year. The lease was transferred from former docks owner Jim Wiblin to the Woodfords when they purchased the facilities in 2009.
Sands said the Valley Gem has been moored along the riverbank just south of the Woodfords' docks since his father began the excursion boat operation 38 years ago. And neither Sands nor his father have ever had a lease with the city for that section of riverbank.
"There's nothing, no lease, and we've been here for nearly 40 years now," Sands said.
He said when his father started operations he contacted the city about a lease, but was told the property belonged to the county. County officials said it did not belong to them, so he asked the state, but was told the state did not own the riverbank either.
Because no one seemed to know who owned the property, Sands said city officials over the years have simply said not to worry about a lease because the Valley Gem is one of the area's top local attractions.
He said he's willing to pay for a lease if the city determines one is required. And he would also like to lease the space currently occupied by the Muskingum River Boat Docks to moor his barge, the Miss Lily, on which Sands plans to begin carrying more passengers as early as next year, once he obtains final permission from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The total length of the Valley Gem with the barge attached would be 335 feet, and in order to hook up to the barge properly, Sands said the current Muskingum River Boat Dock space would be needed.
"It would be very difficult to connect to the barge without that space," he said. "We're planning for the 2013 season now, and if a lease of the additional property is not an option, we'll have to figure something else out."
Sands didn't specify an alternate plan, but noted there could be opportunities for relocation to the West Virginia side of the Ohio River, although suitable facilities would have to be constructed.
Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, who chairs council's lands, buildings and parks committee, said he would like to see the Muskingum River Boat Docks and the Valley Gem continue their operations.
"The Woodfords' dock brings people to Marietta from many different cities who want to keep their boats there," he said. "Right now (city law director) Paul Bertram is researching the legal boundaries of the riverbank in that area before we can develop a lease for those properties."
Wayne Rinehart, project manager with the city engineering department, said Bertram has confirmed that both spaces are located along city riverbank property.
"But I'm waiting on council to provide me with the information I need as to what they want to do with the leases," he said. "We have to get a surveyor to designate where the properties to be leased are located."
Rinehart said specific sizes of the rental tracts have to be determined before the city can develop a lease.
Noland said initial leases for each property would be developed for this year, then a five-year lease arrangement could be put up for public bids on both properties beginning in 2013.
This would be the first time the Woodfords would have to submit a bid for the property.
Noland said the lease would go to the highest bidder.
There had been some discussion of relocating the Valley Gem to the riverbank behind Marietta's National Guard Armory where the showboat Becky Thatcher was once moored, but Sands said that spot's proximity to the piers of the Harmar Railroad Bridge would be too close for the Valley Gem to turn around.
That area is also being considered as a possible location for a docks project to accommodate the city's new police and fire boats that are expected to arrive in September.
Noland said city development specialist Cheyenne Oaks is currently working toward a grant application that could provide funding for police and fire boats docking facilities.
But Sands has suggested the police and fire boats could be docked near the Valley Gem if he can obtain the additional space currently occupied by the Muskingum River Boat Docks.
"We've had to build a security plan for the U.S. Coast Guard that also meets Department of Homeland Security standards," he said. "It would be a natural fit if the police and fire boats would dock with us. I'd love to see those boats docked here."