Profit from public fixtures

NEWPORT BEACH — Paying $55,000 for a mooring in Newport Harbor seemed reasonable to Dan Gribble. It’s what everyone does, he figured.

A longtime owner of a local boatyard, Gribble’s no novice to maritime business. But he may have made a serious miscalculation.

More than three years since an Orange County Grand Jury found that Newport Harbor boaters were essentially buying and selling public moorings, the city is taking steps to curb the practice.

City officials want to prohibit private transfers of moorings and to raise the fees the city charges mooring holders. They have met a massive headwind in the form of angry mooring holders who say their investments would be wiped out.

“I don’t begrudge them their passion,” said Councilman Mike Henn, who sat on a committee that considered the new rules. “We’re trying to arrive at a conclusion of what’s right, and that may well have a significant impact.”

Moorings, the floating cans that boats tie up to, are a much more affordable option than storing a boat in a private marina.

The Orange County Grand Jury from 2007, “Newport Harbor Moorings: Are They Held in the Public Trust or for Private Profit?,” outlined the process whereby mooring holders transfer a mooring for a cost: While it’s illegal to sell a mooring, the holder can sell his or her boat and then transfer the mooring permit.

This sometimes led to decrepit boats selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

As City Manager Dave Kiff laid out that same scheme at a City Council study session last week, some boaters in the audience chuckled at each other, with a nod of recognition to their methods.

The city has proposed that mooring holders can transfer them only within their immediate family. The plan would allow current mooring holders to make one last non-family transfer within the next five years. But if a person buys a vessel on a mooring after that, they will have up to six months to stay there until they must relocate.

Gribble said that would wipe out his $55,000 investment: “Who’s going to pay that money if he knows in five years that it’s gone?”

A recent sweep of Craigslist showed moorings listing for as high as $65,000.

But the city maintains that it would drop the steep price barrier that prevents some from getting a mooring, and that it could start to work through a waiting list of 193 people that hasn’t advanced since at least 2007.

“The people who have moorings think as if they own the moorings, but they don’t,” Henn said.

An advocacy group for mooring holders, the Newport Mooring Assn., led the protest at the council meeting. Its members say that by raising the fees charged to mooring holders, the city will eliminate the great deal that creates a $55,000 demand, and that any claims to a higher “public” purpose are disingenuous.

“It’s just an argument presented to raise more money,” said Mark Sites, a member of the group’s board of directors.