Yellow fuel barge an unwelcome fixture in neighborhood


FORT LAUDERDALE — Neighbors say it’s ugly as sin — a floating gas station that ruins their waterfront views with its bulky yellow presence. May as well have a semi parked out back, they say.

Plus, it’s got thousands of gallons of fuel in its belly, waiting to gas up all those thirsty boats making their way through Fort Lauderdale waterways. Some worry it could spark a fiery explosion one day.

“The whole neighborhood wants it gone,” says Kay Jenkins, whose home sits across the canal from what she calls the gas boat. “The guy next to me in the glass house is praying that when he gets back from vacation, he will be gone.”

Zoning laws prohibit the 60-foot-long commercial barge, owned by Peterson Fuel, from being docked in a residential neighborhood. But the canary yellow boat has been berthed behind the triplex at 1604 Southeast 12 Street in Rio Vista for the past three years. It showed up one day, not long after its owner, Tom Andersen bought the triplex for $900,000 in June 2019.

The yellow gas barge is hard to miss.

“We didn’t think it would stay,” Jenkins said. “We thought it was a temporary stop. But it’s still there, right across the channel. I’m looking at it right now,” she said over the phone.

It was Jenkins who clued in Fort Lauderdale code officials, calling to complain about the barge earlier this year.

Fort Lauderdale officials say city codes prohibit a commercial fuel vessel from docking full-time in a residential district.

A hearing before the special magistrate has been set for Sept. 13. Meanwhile, Peterson Fuel could be fined $250 a day for keeping the boat docked on a neighborhood street.

Tom Andersen, owner of Peterson Fuel, got a warning from code enforcement in June and was told to move the boat by Monday, Aug. 8.

But so far, the boat has remained docked behind the triplex, just down the street from the Lauderdale Yacht Club.

“We’re going to fight it,” said Hardy Andersen, Peterson Fuel president and the owner’s son. “That’s why we’re still here. They wanted us gone a long time ago. If we are gone, fuel prices are going to skyrocket.”

Jenkins, who moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s, says she got a call from Andersen after calling the city to complain.

“We had a calm conversation but it didn’t go anywhere, other than him saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” she said.

Jenkins lives in Lauderdale Harbors, the neighborhood just south of the triplex that’s providing a home for the barge.

“It’s just like having a semi parked in front of your house. It’s an eyesore,” said Barbara Magill, former president of the Lauderdale Harbors Improvement Association. “Neighbors are concerned if it blew up it could be a danger to their boats. When you live on the water in a fairly expensive home, you don’t want to look at an industrial vessel across from you.”

Jenkins says she hopes to one day look out her window and see the barge gone for good.

“It makes you crazy,” she said. “There was never an ugly yellow boat before this one. The boat is bright yellow and when the sun hits it, the reflection of that yellow glows into your house. If I could drive the boat, I’d drive it away.”

Neighbor Gary Krebs says he’s heard the buzz of complaints about the yellow fuel barge, but doesn’t share the concern.

“It’s docked on a residential canal and people are afraid it’s going to blow up,” said Krebs, a former Peterson Fuel customer who owns Lauderdale Live Bait.

“I live less than 100 yards away,” he said. “I’ve heard people complain. I don’t say anything. because some people like to complain and this is an easy thing to complain about. It’s certainly no uglier than a water taxi. It’s like they used the same can of paint.”

Krebs says he wouldn’t mind if the barge were docked behind his house.

“I’m ready to meet my maker,” he said, tongue in cheek. “If it blew up and I die, I’d figure I’m here long enough. I’m 68. Anything I want to do in life I’ve done.”

This is not the first controversy between the city and Peterson Fuel.

The company filed a federal lawsuit against Fort Lauderdale in 2010, claiming city officials and marine police officers began conspiring in 2008 to “harass and intimidate Peterson Fuel in an attempt to drive it out of business.”

Police threatened to arrest barge captains, falsely accused the company of massive fuel spills and chasing away customers, according to the lawsuit. The suit said city officials prohibited the Peterson fleet from refueling boat customers along the waterways for eight months, from May to December 2009.

On one occasion, a Peterson fuel barge was waiting to gas up a boat on the New River when a police officer with the Marine Unit warned the captain he’d go to jail if the vessel was fueled.

On another occasion, the Marine Unit stopped the fuel barge and threatened to arrest its captain after he fueled vessels two, falsely claiming he had blocked the channel north of the Las Olas Bridge.

Fort Lauderdale settled the suit for $40,000 in 2012, allowing Peterson to continue to sell fuel to boaters at private docks and along the waterways.

Peterson has four tank ships delivering fuel to vessels at private docks and also meeting clients by appointment along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Andersen says the entire fleet is safe and inspected every year by the United States Coast Guard. The other three barges are docked on the New River in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami River.

In business since 1997, Peterson vessels are capable of providing 10,000 gallons of fuel on demand. Hydraulic spud poles on both ends of the boat are driven into the bottom of the waterway, ensuring a stable pumping platform.

Over the years, marina owners weren’t exactly happy to see those bright yellow fuel barges camped out nearby, selling cheaper gas to boaters that might have otherwise fueled up at the marina.

Kelly Drum, co-owner of Lauderdale Marina on Southeast 15th Street and the Intracoastal Waterway, was one of the barges’ loudest critics at the time.

“I don’t want some guy coming in and staking down in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway and selling gas right in front of our location,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2009. “We’re in business. We pay property taxes. If he wants to operate his business and he wants to sell fuel then he ought to go buy himself a piece of land.”

Drum declined to comment, saying not much has changed.

Mayor Dean Trantalis had plenty to say.

“No one should be conducting commercial enterprises in a residential area,” Trantalis said. “If everyone did that we would totally diminish the quality of life for our residents. He should seek out a commercial area like all the other commercial operators who have to pay the price of operating a business. We can’t make exceptions for people who are trying to get around the rules.”

The highly specialized boats are worth around $2 million apiece, with hoses that can pump up to 240 gallons a minute.

“We do jobs that are 200 gallons and some that are 100,000 gallons,” Andersen said.

Peterson’s customers might need anything from 200 gallons to 100,000 gallons, with the supersized yachts paying as much as $500,000 to fuel up.

Tea competition is cut-throat and not without controversy, Andersen said.

Jimmy Tate, the developer who holds the lease at the city-owned Bahia Mar marina, described Peterson Fuel as a thorn in the side.

“They used to park literally right outside our fuel tanks at the marina back in 2017 [and sell gas to boaters],” Tate said. “We called the city to see if we could get them to move. The city said their hands were tied. We started selling gas at cost just to get rid of them.”

These days the Peterson fuel barge hangs out to the north, near the Hall of Fame marina just south of Las Olas.

Boaters can save up to 25 percent or more using a Peterson tank ship instead of a marina, Andersen said.

“A lot of these marinas don’t want a company like ours around,” he said. “Clients have been told by marinas that if they start using Peterson Fuel they’d lose their dock slip. I have clients who say, ‘Can you get me around the corner so they can’t see us?’ It’s crazy.”

Bill McGrory, a yacht captain and longtime customer of Peterson Fuel, says the savings add up when you’re buying 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel

“If the price difference is 50 cents it could be a difference of 10 grand,” he said. “That’s quite a chunk of money. We use Peterson. They’re more than 10 percent cheaper. Typically we pay between $2 and $3 a gallon. But this year, we’re paying double that. It’s been insane.”

One of Peterson’s captains lives at the triplex.

A fuel tanker comes by once or twice a week to fuel up the barge, Andersen said.

“I’ve heard neighbors complain about the color,” he said. “One woman thought it was a big bomb sitting there ready to explode. I can tell you that vessel is one of the safest on the water. It’s double-hulled steel. And it’s regulated by the US Coast Guard.”

Some people have mistaken the bright yellow tank ships for water taxis, Andersen said.

“I can’t tell you how many water taxi calls I get,” he said. “Plenty of people get confused all the time, thinking we’re the water taxi. You can see us coming from far away.”

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As for why the company has not moved the boat, Andersen says it’s hard to find dock space.

The mayor scoffed at the claim.

“It’s not that there isn’t any available dock space,” Trantalis said. “The issue is more what price people are willing to pay.”

Peterson is essentially docking his gas barge in Rio Vista for free, though the owner is paying more than $17,000 in property taxes.

What if he refuses to move the barge?

“We have law enforcement that will seize his operation and shut down his business,” Trantalis said.

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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