Seaplanes (aka “float planes”) are occasionally found landing and taking off from our freshwater lakes here in Florida. I grew up on a lake that was approximately 80 acres, and it was always an exciting event when our next door neighbor would fly his seaplane in and out.
Lakefront property owners are often curious about the laws surrounding the use of aircraft on public waterways. Some of these owners may want to have the ability to fly a plane in and out of the lake, while other owners may specifically not want to have others flying in and out of the lake.
So, how exactly does it work? The answer can get a bit muddy. With the exception of a few federally protected areas (e.g. Everglades National Park), most bodies of water can be assumed to be open to seaplane activity, unless there are specific local ordinances in place prohibiting their use. But this is where it gets interesting, because a close study of the law suggests that most of the local ordinances that are in place would probably not stand the test of a court challenge due to conflicting state statutes.
History of Florida’s Seaplane Laws
It can be helpful to understand the history behind it all. Florida’s laws regarding the operation of aircraft on public waterways actually has a rich history from right here in Central Florida. Rich Hensch of Florida Seaplanes has lived on the water all of his 62 years, and has been flying for 42 of those years. He was kind enough to give me a brief history on the laws surrounding it all.
According to Hensch, it all started in 1987 when a homeowner on Lake Conway (located in Belle Isle, a small municipality in metro Orlando) invited a friend to fly in on a seaplane for an afternoon get-together. Belle Isle apparently had a law on the books at that time prohibiting the use of seaplanes on Lake Conway, and subsequently, a disgruntled lakefront neighbor called the authorities and the pilot was ticketed. The irritated homeowner sued the City of Belle Isle and won. The defendent then sued the City of Belle Isle for a “declaratory judgment” of their seaplane law. The 5th Circuit Court in Daytona upheld the ruling that is “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable” to prohibit seaplanes where they could otherwise be operated.
At one point, some of these anti-seaplane citizens lobbied for the State of Florida Department of Transportation to create a law requiring that any location that kept or maintained an airplane for any length of time be designated an airport, which requires a separate airport license. This was effectively a back door attempt at prohibiting the use of seaplanes by private owners, as it would have forced anyone who owned and kept a seaplane on their waterfront to have that area licensed as an airport.
The State subsequently replaced that language and further clarified the statute to one that currently reads:
330.36 Prohibition against county or municipal licensing of airports; regulation of seaplane landings.–
(1) No county or municipality of this state shall license airports or control their location except by zoning requirements. The determination of suitable sites and standards of safety for airports shall be in accordance with the provisions of this chapter. Nothing in this chapter shall be interpreted as prohibiting a county or municipality from issuing occupational licenses to operators of airports.
(2) Upon adoption of zoning requirements in compliance with subsection (1), a municipality may prohibit or otherwise regulate, for specified public health and safety purposes, the landing of seaplanes in and upon any public waters of the state which are located within the limits or jurisdiction of, or bordering on, the municipality.
So in other words, a local municipality must state specific public health and safety concerns if they are to prohibit or otherwise regulate the use of waterways to seaplane use. But a review of the handful of municipalities that do have laws in place to regulate seaplane activity shows that they do not actually meet the statutory requirements of specifying the public health and safety purposes.
City of Winter Park’s language:
It shall be unlawful for any person to use any lake covered by this chapter as a regular landing place or base of operation for float planes or seaplanes, but nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the use of the lakes by such planes in case of emergency.
City of Maitland’s language:
It shall be unlawful to land a float or seaplane on any lake or waterway of the city except in an emergency.
So, what does all this mean? It depends on whether you’re seeking a practical answer or a legal answer. From a practical perspective, landing a seaplane is permitted on most bodies of water throughout the state with a handful of municipalities having created laws prohibiting such use. But, it would appear from a legal perspective, that the vast majority of those municipalities have done so in a way that conflicts with Florida statutory law.
Of course, this brings us back to practical consideration: Are there pilots out there who are motivated enough to go out and try to challenge these municipal laws through the court system? Based on what Hensch tells me, to this point, the answer has been “no”.
This takes us back to a recurring theme – Do your research prior to falling in love with a particular lake. If you want to use your lake to operate a seaplane, or if you are particularly averse to the idea of others using your lake for the same purpose, a review of the local laws and discussion with some of the local seaplane operators should go a long way in helping you make a good purchase decision.
One of the biggest benefits of living on the water is the peace and quiet it provides. A steady stream of noisy seaplanes flying in and out of your pristine lakefront setting could be a nightmare scenario for some folks. With a few fairly well-known exceptions noted below, most lakefront residents will rarely, if ever, experience a seaplane landing or takeoff from their waterfront.
Of course, the notable exception to this is if someone else on your lake happens to own and maintain a seaplane, and in this case, the amount of plane traffic you experience will depend on the frequency with which your neighbor uses his or her plane. It has been my experience that most seaplane pilots are sensitive to being good neighbors, and as I previously noted, watching a plane take off from your lake can be downright thrilling.
A list of lakes that have high seaplane activity will be added soon.
There really aren’t any major environmental concerns with a seaplane. Seaplanes do not introduce any significant exhaust gases or oil into the water itself, unlike most outboard motorboats that are powered by two-cycle motors. Most seaplanes don’t require much more than 18 inches of water depth, so there should be no real impact to lake bottom or vegetation, under normal operating conditions.
Boats and Seaplanes
There is well-established hierarchy on the water, and essentially it is this – the larger vessel always yields to the smaller. In the case of seaplanes, when they are taxiing or otherwise operating on the water’s surface, they are considered a vessel that must yield to all other vessels on the water at that time.
Lake Characteristics Suitable to Seaplane Use
According to Hensch, a safe minimum distance for a takeoff for a seaplane is approximately 1/2 mile. Anything less than that can get “tight”.
So, how does that translate to a lake size? If we were to assume an approximately circular lake, then that works out to a surface area of about 125 acres.