Bigger Slip Trend Worries Owners of Small Boats

Times Staff Writer

Plans by a major leaseholder at Marina del Rey to replace 154 small-boat slips with larger slips has a group of small-boat owners concerned that they will eventually be squeezed out of the county-owned but privately operated small-craft harbor.

County officials are also concerned about the future of small-boat owners in Marina del Rey. But they point to contracts that allow private operators to build any size slips and to market conditions that indicate a greater demand for larger boat slips.

The trend toward larger boat slips is evident at two nearby harbors: San Pedro, where there are only a handful of slips for boats under 30 feet long, and Long Beach, where 40 small slips are being replaced with 25 larger slips.

"It may be a fact of life," said Herbert J. Strickstein, a member of the Los Angeles County Small Craft Harbor Commission.

Reducing Total Slips

Far West Management Corp., which holds the master lease for a 297-slip anchorage called Villa del Mar Marina on Marquesas Way in Marina del Rey, recently notified the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors that it intends to rebuild its marina so that nearly all slips under 30 feet are eliminated. The reconfiguration would reduce the total number of slips from 297 to 216. The majority of the new slips would be for boats between 30 and 40 feet long.

County officials say existing leases allow leaseholders to redesign marinas without county approval and that leaseholders are not required to provide any specific size slips.

Far West, however, does need Coastal Commission approval. A spokesman for Far West said the company expects the approval to be routine and has issued 30-day eviction notices to boat owners with small slips. The company hopes to begin construction in mid-November and to complete the project by April.

A spokesman for the Coastal Commission said Far West's application has not been reviewed but is tentatively scheduled to be discussed when the commission meets Nov. 15-18 in Marina del Rey.

Jerry Rowley, president of the Pioneer Skippers Boat Owners Assn., said he intends to oppose the application.

"We're going to fight it," Rowley said. "I'm not at liberty to discuss on what grounds. We do not want to tell the owner in advance of our argument."

Although Rowley would not discuss the basis for his opposition, he and other small boaters in the past have complained that because Marina del Rey was built with federal, state and local bond issues, the county has an obligation to make it available to the public at a "fair and reasonable cost."

'Fair Return'

The small-boater owners have also argued that county leases call for master leaseholders in the marina to receive only a "fair and reasonable return" on their investments.

Since the Board of Supervisors began allowing major increases in slip fees in 1984, and completely deregulated rates in 1987, boaters have seen slip fees in the 18 privately operated anchorages in Marina del Rey increase from an average $6.46 per linear foot to the current $9.65 per linear foot.

"They passed a reasonable level of profits eight years ago," Rowley said. "At $4 a linear foot, there's no way no one wouldn't make any money."

Until slip fees started climbing, there were no vacancies in Marina del Rey, one of the most popular marinas in the state because of its proximity to Los Angeles, housing and numerous restaurants and nightclubs, according to county officials.

Vacancies soared to an all time high in February, 1988, reaching 5.3% of the marina's 5,265 total slips. Of the 282 vacant slips that month, 277 were for boat slips 35 feet long and smaller.

Some of those vacancies can be attributed to the winter, when many owners take their boats out of the water. But Rowley said higher rates are also driving out small-boat owners, who are now forced to take their boats to the marina on trailers or store them in dry docks.

"They are killing boating," Rowley said of the marina operators. "People usually start out with small boats and then move up. But when new young people are not coming into boating because they can not afford the boat slips, there are not going to be any new boaters."

Fewer Vacancies

This month, the vacancy rate has dropped to 2.8%, or 145. Most of the vacancies from February were filled by boats 26 to 35 feet long, so that the number of slips available for boats that size dropped from 129 in February to 38 this month. For slips 18 to 25 feet long, vacancies dropped from 148 in February to 107 this month.

This month's figures show no vacancies for boats over 36 feet long.

David A. Canzoneri, a spokesman for Far West, and other marina operators point to the high vacancy figures for small boats as justification for replacing the smaller slips with larger ones.

"More and more people are wanting larger slips," Canzoneri said. "If there was not a demand, there would be no logic to having larger slips."

"Today, the demand is in the 35-foot and up slips," said Robert Leslie, executive director of the Marina del Rey Leasee Assn., a group representing the major leaseholders in Marina del Rey.

"The future of the market will boil down to two things: how many vacancies are there and how much is it going to cost me. Only each lessee can make that determination. Nobody wants to sit there with a lot of empty boat slips."

Leslie said other marina operators will be making that determination in the next few years as the time approaches to renovate their anchorages.

The move toward larger slips is already a reality in other nearby marinas.

Change in Slip Size

When Long Beach officials built Alamitos Bay marina in 1956, 44% of the of the 2,005 slips were for boats 25-feet and shorter. But in 1980, when a new marina was built in the downtown area, none of the 1,693 slips were for boats less than 30 feet long, according to Dick Miller, manager of the marine bureau of the Long Beach City Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the marina.

"We have 1,600 to 1,800 people on a waiting list," Miller said. "The most popular slips were those in the 30- and 45-foot range."

Miller said the city is renovating docks and decks in the 32-year-old Alamitos Bay. As part of that project, 40 20-foot slips are being replaced with 25 30-foot slips.

"Dry boat storage has become so convenient and cheaper that many small-boat owners would rather have their boats in dry storage," Miller said, noting that dry dock storage is usually about a third the cost of most slip fees.

In Los Angeles Harbor in San Pedro, the Port of Los Angeles built a new 1,180-slip marina two years ago with virtually no slips under 30 feet and with the average slip measuring 36 feet.

"Before we designed and built this marina, we did a market survey and found that the largest category of unmet demand was in the larger slips, 40 feet and above," said Mark Richter, assistant director of property mangement for the Port of Los Angeles. "Based on that study, we decided to accommodate vessels that needed to be in the water rather than vessels that could be trailered or dry-stored. We felt that the public interest in recreational boating would best be served with that type of facility."

Determine Demand

Richter said a second phase will add 1,600 slips to Cabrillo Marina in about seven years, but a decision has not been made on whether it will include slips for boats less than 30 feet long.

"We will have to determine where the highest demand is at that time," Richter said.

Both Long Beach and Los Angeles harbor have no boat slip vacancies--partly because both have lower slip fees than Marina del Rey. Both harbors are also publicly owned and operated, unlike the publicly owned but privately operated Marina del Rey.

In Long Beach, Miller said, monthly slip fees are $6.70 per linear foot for boats under 30 feet long, $7.07 per linear foot for boats between 30 and 44 feet and $7.46 for boats 45 feet and longer. Miller said the city makes about 4% profit on the marina.

In Los Angeles, the rates are a flat $6.95 per linear foot. However, Richter said there is a proposal to raise rates to $7.35 next year, and to $7.75 the following year. Richter said the port makes about 5% profit.

"We try to keep our rates at slightly below median for the market," Richter said. "The average market rate is about $8 per linear foot right now."

Richter said the Port of Los Angeles does lease a small marina in Cerritos Channel in Wilmington where rates are between $7.50 and $8 per linear foot, depending on the size of the boat. The Port receives 25% of the operator's revenue.

County Gets 20%

The profit margin for the 18 privately operated marinas in Marina del Rey is not available, but it is believed to be more than 5%, according to county officials. Each of the operators pays the county 20% of his revenues. Last year, the private marina operators had combined revenues of nearly $23 million. Total gross revenues from all operations in Marina del Rey were nearly $260 million last year.

Thus, empty boat slips are not only bad business for the private operator, but also for the county.

Since the last of the 18 marinas was completed in 1972, the mix of boat slip lengths in Marina del Rey has remained at 40% under 30 feet long, and about 83% under 40 feet long.

Although some county officials said they hope Marina del Rey will always have slips for smaller boats, they acknowledge that there may be too many of the smaller slips to meet the market demand of the 1990s.

"I'm not certain if the reality of the business world is going to change and allow me to be concerned (about the trend) to the point where I am going to be opposed to it," said Commissioner Strickstein. "Statistics show that new marinas have a very small percentage of slips for the 18- to 29-foot-long boats."

"The trend is for bigger boats," said David Boran, chairman of the 5-member Small Craft Harbor Commission. "A 40-foot boat is probably cheaper today than a 20-foot boat was 20 years ago."

Still, both men said they expect there will always be some small-boat slips, but they also acknowledged that existing leases with private operators limit what county officials can do.

"I don't think we are going to eliminate the small boats completely," Boran said. "I think the county would try to make some effort to stop that."

"I'm opposed to doing away with all the small boats," Strickstein said, "but there is still a big question what we can and can't do about it."

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