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Floating in the bay
William Marks proudly flies an American flag atop his modest Eastpoint home.
But based on the unusual structure where he rests his head at night, his vision of patriotism differs from those of many of his neighbors.
Marks, 50, lives aboard a homemade floating raft which he poles along the Eastpoint waterfront, or sometimes even under the Gorrie Bridge,
When he needs food, he’ll paddle board to shore, hop on a bicycle and pick up groceries or visit the post office to pick up a government check he receives to survive.
His presence has attracted the attention of both law enforcement and elected officials, with discussion surfacing of having him removed.
But the laws that govern what can be done in the waters make the subject a complicated one, and one for which county officials may not have an easy answer.
Marks, nicknamed “Cotton Top,” has run afoul of the law ever since leaving high school, but never for a violent or sexual crime.
Rather, his crimes have been thefts or burglaries, or oystering in a closed area or not having a saltwater products license, or public affray or DUI, even an escape in 2015 from county jail.
His bout with drugs began with cannabis and got worse over the years, until he was sentenced in 2019 to two years in state prison, his second state incarceration, for having sold $20 worth of meth to a confidential informant.
Marks was released in March 2021 and that’s when he had to figure out how to live on his own.
“I got out of prison and had no place to live so I built me a place to live,” he said.
With an $18 roll of duct tape, and some bamboo and some palettes that Barber’s Seafood had thrown away, he lashed together a raft. He had a tent that he placed atop it, and picked up a 12-volt battery-powered radio and a cooler to hold his food.
“It may be shabby but it’s my home,” said Marks.
Sheriff A.J. Smith addressed the matter in a recent Facebook Live broadcast, stating that both his office and County Commission Ricky Jones had been receiving complaints.
While not referring to anyone by name, Smith said these “derelict, some kind of houseboat things” had been spotted in the bay.
“There was one, now there’s two,” he said. “Deputies wrote a couple of citations for these boats not having sanitary places for sewer.”
These were not criminal citations, Smith said, noting that he talked with Jones and County Administrator Michael Morón about a county ordinance that would prohibit these people from living there.
“It’s very unsightly and not clean,” he said. “I don’t think any of them are working, none of them appear to work; they seem to float up and down the dock.”
“We’re going to do whatever we can, everything that’s in my power, especially after once they dredge the Eastpoint channel,” Smith said. “We want to keep it clean, keep it manicured. The Eastpoint waterfront is really a beautiful piece of the county and we want to keep it like that.”
It remains unclear exactly what the county can do, since local law enforcement officials have very little say in regulating what goes on in state waters, which is generally the province of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Ashlee Sklute, a spokesman for FWC, said that all vessels on waters of this state are required to comply with all equipment, lighting, and marine sanitation device requirements. The vessel may not be derelict, block navigation, be moored or fastened to any lawfully placed navigation aids or regulatory markers, or violate any other applicable boating laws
“If none of these violations are occurring, FWC law enforcement involvement would not be warranted,” she said.
Jones said he believes the issue must be addressed sensitively.
“As a government we can’t turn a blind eye that people can live how they want to,” he said. “We have to deal with the sanitary issue; there’s no way to dispose of waste. That’s the biggest thing I’ve tried to address.
“Most all state agencies we’ve talked to have said there’s nothing they would do with it,” Jones said. “With it left unchecked, what’s to say next month we’ll have 12 rafts floating by waterways.
“Ideally I would like to see us get some assistance,” he said. “Our bigger problem is there’s a lot of things we could and should do that we’re not set up to handle, the framework’s not there. Bigger counties have ways to help, there’s more of a safety net there that doesn’t exist in our community.
“He’s just trying to live, he’s doing the best he can do,” said Jones. “We have to remember we’re all people and we all deserve equal treatment.”