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Party boat owner wins injunction against city

Friday, March 9, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Watertight Endeavors Inc., the owner of three party boats used for weddings, family reunions, high school graduations and similar occasions, has won its first court battle against the city to keep using the Walsh Landing public dock for loading and unloading passengers on Lake Austin.

District Judge Karin Crump granted the temporary injunction on Tuesday, enjoining Kimberly McNeeley, the interim director of the Parks and Recreation Department, and the city from “taking any action banning (Austin Party Cruises) boats from accessing and using the public dock at Walsh Boat Landing so long as the boat dock is available for public use,” until there is a final trial on the matter.

The hearing on Feb. 21 featured testimony from McNeeley and Vollie Gene Smith, the owner of Watertight Endeavors, which operates under the trade name Austin Party Cruises. For the past 22 years, Smith said his boats have been using Walsh Landing just to allow customers to get on the boat to take a short cruise on Lake Austin and to disembark once the cruise is over. He told the judge that he has three boats and the partiers must hire a professional driver to operate them.

Smith told the court that he does not collect any money at Walsh Landing, but it is the only place on the lake that he can use, and it is also the only public pump-out station on the lake. Without the use of that dock, he said, “my business will certainly fail.”

According to Smith’s legal brief, most of the company’s business occurs between March and September. At the time of the filing, so far for 2018 Watertight customers had reserved rental of its boats for “seven wedding ceremonies, eight wedding dinners or bachelorette parties, six family reunions, four mother/daughter/son dances, two senior citizens outings and three high school graduation parties or dances. Without immediate relief from the court, Watertight will have to cancel these rental contracts.”

Smith’s attorney, Bill Aleshire, argued that although a city ordinance gives the parks director the authority to require an authorization in order to conduct commercial activity in a park, it did not allow her to deny authorization without a good reason. The ordinance, he said, “says the parks director shall issue an authorization unless certain conditions exist,” such as damage to property or causing congestion.

During the hearing, McNeeley was not able to testify about congestion or damage to the dock. She said the city does not offer an appeal process for this type of administrative denial.

Aleshire said Smith did not believe that he was required to get any authorization from the parks department, but he filled out the form anyway. After he did so, the parks department returned the form to him and declined to allow him to continue use of Walsh Landing.

This is the issue, Aleshire said: “Can a city of Austin staff member unilaterally destroy small businesses, first by creating and requiring ‘boat permits’ and fees for boats that are not actually required to be permitted, and then by refusing to even accept applications for, or issue, any such permits?”

Aleshire concluded, “At least a preliminary answer is: no.”

Between the time of the hearing in February and the ruling on Tuesday, Austin Party Cruises needed a dock but could not use Walsh Landing. On March 2, Aleshire said, Smith was able to board passengers at Travis County’s Loop 360 boat dock. “But that is the last time” he will use it.

“It doesn’t make business sense and parks rangers have already warned him that his boat cannot sit next to the dock without blocking the boat ramp. And they’ll ticket him,” if he attempts to use it again, Aleshire said. In addition, Aleshire said, “the PGA tournament has the county’s boat dock at 360 rented for the next couple of weeks or so, so he wouldn’t be able to use it at all.” According to the county website, the Loop 360 Boat Ramp Park will be closed March 18-25 for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play tournament.

A city spokesperson told the Austin Monitor, “We’re reviewing the ruling but haven’t yet determined options or next steps.” Crump ordered a final trial on the merits in this case for May 1.

Photo via Facebook.

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