Marina Boat-Slip Vacancies Up as Fees Increase

Times Staff Writer

Marina del Rey boat slip prices rose again last month and more boaters abandoned their marina slips, leaving county officials wondering why marina owners, who lease the county-owned property, are not lowering prices instead of raising them.

County officials reported at a Small Craft Harbor Commission meeting this month that slip fees rose another 10% in December and that 32 more boat slips were vacated.

In 1984 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a plan that lifted price controls for the marina's 6,400 slips. The plan allowed three 6% fee increases between November, 1984, and January, 1987, when complete deregulation took effect.

Since 1984, fees in the 18 privately operated marinas have risen from $6.46 per linear foot to the current $9.46, making them among the most expensive in the state. The marinas, which formerly had long waiting lists for boat slips, now have 266 empty slips.

Time for Re-Regulation?

"I'd like to go to the Board of Supervisors to suggest re-regulation," said Small Craft Harbor Commissioner Louis Rogers.

County officials said they had expected marina owners to lower slip fees to turn back the climbing vacancy rate. With one exception, this has not happened.

In the last 12 months, deregulated fees have risen an average of 19%, county reports show. Inflation for the same period was 4.4%, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Robert Leslie, spokesman for the marina owners, said slip fees were kept artificially low under county regulation. When the supervisors deregulated the fees, Leslie said, "We were told to bring them up to market (value)."

Leslie does not anticipate further increases for the smaller slips. "I think we found market (value) in small slips," he said.

According to boat owner and retired statistician Gerald Winston, the monthly slip fee for his 28-foot boat increased from $229 in March to the current $280.

The 25-year-old Marina del Rey was financed through federal, state and local bond issues and loans with the provision that the marina would benefit the public.

While the county's leasing agreement allows the privately operated marinas there to receive a "fair and reasonable return" on their investment, it states the facilities must be available to the public at a "fair and reasonable cost."

The county receives 20% of marina owners' gross earnings. Last year, marina operators plunked more than $3 million into county coffers.

Now marina boaters and some commissioners say the deregulated fees are no longer "reasonable," especially for small-boat owners who, they say, are leaving the marina.

Of the marina's 266 vacant slips, 260 are for 35-foot boats or smaller. "The high slip fees are driving people out of the marina," boat owner Winston said.

Until slip fees started climbing, there were no vacancies in Marina del Rey, he said.

Herbert Strickstein, a Small Craft Harbor commissioner, said the marina's high slip prices are discouraging first-time boaters, who usually start out with a small boat.

"I don't want to see the marina turned into a rich man's playground," he said.

But marina owners' spokesman Leslie said the demand for the marina's 4,200 small boat slips no longer exists. "The economics in the marina have changed," he said.

New small boats are designed to be mobile, Leslie said. Dry-docking a boat makes transportation easier and maintenance cheaper, he contended.

However, David Raff, an independent boat surveyor for insurance companies and boat owners in the marina, said most boat owners prefer to keep their boats in the water. According to Raff, small boat owners chose to stay in marina slips until fees became prohibitively expensive.

Jerry Rowley, president of Pioneer Skippers Boat Owners Assn., said: "The idea that people want to dry-dock all these boats is ridiculous."

Transporting a boat, even a small one with a fixed keel, is cumbersome and expensive, he said.

Although Leslie said there is a greater demand for large slips in the marina, a survey published in the February, 1988, issue of the national boating newspaper Sounding stated that 97% of all recreational boats are 26 feet or smaller.

Strickstein theorized that perhaps marina operators want to keep the vacancy rate high for small slips to later justify replacing them with larger, more lucrative slips.

"It may be cynicism, but these are businessmen and entrepreneurs and (they) want to make a profit," he said, "I have no facts, I'm just looking for an explanation."

Marina owners will undoubtedly want to increase the size of boat slips when they recondition or rebuild the docks, although there are no immediate plans for reconstruction, Leslie said.

In order to make a permanent change in the number or size of boat slips, however, marina owners would need approval from the state Coastal Commission and county supervisors.

According to Coastal Commission planner Lisa Horowitz, any change in the number of people or boats using the marina, even if it involves a decrease, would require a commission permit.

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