Santa Barbara Boat Spaces Harder to Get Than Houses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you think finding affordable housing is tough in this increasingly exclusive coastal retreat, just try to find a place to tie up your boat in the harbor.

The marina is booked so tight they've stopped adding names to the 20-year waiting list. Slip permits are so valuable they can add tens of thousands of dollars to a boat's sale price.

"It's difficult to sell a boat in Santa Barbara if you don't have a [slip] permit," said John Bridley, the waterfront director.

Recognizing the premium value of the permits, the city is proposing new rules to make the process as fair as possible. One change would prevent families from passing permits down like silverware from one generation to the next.

That has caused a stir in the placid marina that is home to modest pleasure craft as well as musician David Crosby's 90-foot sloop. But what has really kicked up a squall around the clam shacks is a proposal to exempt domestic partners--but not children--from the new rules.

Critics complain that it is not fair to change the rules for boat owners who have used the marina for decades.

"This inheritance issue has struck a nerve," said Bridley.

Santa Barbara Harbor is one of the larger marinas in Southern California, with about 1,200 slips for boats up to 100 feet long. Two years ago, the city added 74 slips, making room for some owners who had been waiting for a berth since the 1970s.

Even so, of all the marinas from Morro Bay to San Diego, Santa Barbara probably still has the longest waiting list, Bridley said. The list is now frozen, but because only four or five slips open each year through death or attrition, it could take 20 years to clear it, Bridley said.

The long waits have nothing to do with the gentrification of the Central Coast, where the Chamber of Commerce likes to boast about how many CEOs live in the area.

"We've got all walks of life, everything from [small sailboats] to mega-yachts worth millions of dollars," said Bridley. Besides Crosby, slip holders include Charles Munger, Warren Buffett's partner, who keeps a boat worth $7 million.

One attraction is the harbor's modest slip fees, which range from $5.85 to $7.55 per linear foot. That is lower than most marinas in Southern California.

In fact, Bridley has proposed raising the fees 4% to keep the waterfront budget sound. That's caused some grumbling, but it's the inheritance proposal that has people grousing.

The issue arose a year ago, when a boat owner died and relatives said they wanted to hold onto the slip and sell the boat in place. Bridley said his staff agreed.

"Wait a minute," Bridley said to his staff. "When somebody dies, we don't even get the slip?"

He said he was told that previous waterfront directors had allowed family members "to step into the shoes" of a deceased permit holder.

In this case, Bridley said no to the transfer, the family sued, and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money in return for the slip permit. That's why Bridley is recommending that the City Council change the city code to bar most family members from inheriting slip permits. Only co-owners, spouses and domestic partners would be eligible to keep the boat in its slip. Otherwise, the permit would return to the city to be given to the next person on the waiting list.

Boat owners could keep their boats in the family--and in the marina--by adding the names of their children to the permit. But they will have to pay a special fee to do so. That fee also is scheduled to go up under the new budget--from $50 per linear foot to $75.

Adding a child to the permit on a 30-foot boat would cost $3,000. A gay partner could inherit it at no cost.

One disgruntled boat owner told the newspaper in Santa Barbara that the city is "treating domestic partners with greater respect than my children."

Bridley said that's not a fair comparison. "A gay partner is a spouse, where children are still children," he said. "We cannot discriminate against homosexual partners."

Mayor Harriet Miller declined to comment because she will be voting on the proposal, but said the city has "acknowledged domestic partners as a reasonable union" in determining who is eligible for employment benefits.

Slip holders also complain that their family members should be grandfathered in on permits. Otherwise, they will have to pay thousands of dollars to add children, and future boat owners will be able to include family members on the permit when they sign on.

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