Mooring debate stays afloat

NEWPORT BEACH — If some Newport Harbor boaters have their way, Donald Bren would pay more to keep up the bay.

He and other bayfront homeowners would pay more for docks like the one in front of his Harbor Island home. And the business Bren chairs, the Irvine Co., and other commercial marina operators would give a larger cut of their profits.

But such increases aren’t likely to happen before the city hikes the fees for moorings, the floating cans boaters lease from the government.

Mooring holders packed the City Council Chambers last week to protest the Newport Beach’s proposed fee increases and rules restricting their ability to transfer permits.

Holders say city officials want to raise their fees disproportionally, and that others should pay more, including some of the politically influential people like bayfront homeowners.

“They look at us like a piggy bank,” said Mark Sites, a board member of the Newport Mooring Assn., an advocacy group for mooring holders. “We’re not the only boats that are using the harbor.”

City officials say they will evaluate the costs and revenues associated with all harbor users, but that they want to tackle each issue separately because of the complexity. The moorings, for instance, carry the weight of an Orange County grand jury investigation, which found the city was mismanaging the mooring process.

“It’s a very, very complicated situation,” said Councilman Mike Henn. “What we have in Newport Bay has just sort of evolved over time.”

One of the findings of the grand jury was that the city hadn’t assessed the moorings’ “fair market value” since the mid-1990s.

Because the annual mooring fees are low — $20 per linear foot (of a boat), compared to more than $500 per foot at a private marina — boaters covet one of the public cans.

They’ve been willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a current mooring holder, under the table, to have a permit transferred into their name.

By hiking the fees and setting them to about 15% of the harbor’s average private marina rent, city officials hope to break the cycle.

“The city gets nothing from that check that’s written, and that mooring is a public asset,” Henn said. “The point is, a user of the harbor that’s using a public asset should pay an appropriate value.”

Members of the Mooring Assn. contend that the city doesn’t extract enough from those whose docks sometimes extend over city-owned tidelands.

They say the City Council wants to get the most vocal group out of the way first, and would rather avoid the more politically sensitive discussion concerning commercial marinas or bayfront home docks.

“What they’re doing now is they are splitting the herd,” said Sites, who believes commercial and residential dock owners “may have some undue influence.”

Henn said the city isn’t going to play favorites, and that “nobody is exempt.”

The Newport Harbor Yacht Club and the Balboa Yacht Club hold some of the city moorings, and Henn said the city planned to examine if their arrangement was in the public’s best interest. The grand jury, in 2007, thought it was not.

But taking on homeowners may be a bigger challenge. Littoral rights (a body of property law) protect property owners whose land abuts the bay.

When the dock is over public tidelands, Mooring Assn. members say the city should get more benefit.

Right now, the city only charges $100 per year. The association’s argument goes like this: bayfront homes derive value from the public asset of the bay, but the city doesn’t funnel property taxes back into the fund used to maintain the harbor.

The Tidelands Fund, a $9.5 million pot of money, incorporates revenues from moorings, docks and other sources, such as the American Legion and the Balboa Bay Club, both of which lease bayfront land from the city.

Officials say the fund doesn’t take in enough to cover ongoing expenditures like dredging or for capital improvements like the upcoming Marina Park marina. They project a $19-million deficit in 2017 for harbor-related projects.

So one way to raise mooring revenue, which amounted to around $700,000 last year, would be to hike the fees each year.

City Manager Dave Kiff presented a hypothetical 40-foot boat at last week’s council session: Right now its owner pays about $70 per month to moor in the harbor. If the fees were pegged to the current marina average, then the fees would eventually increase to about $200 per month.

Coupled with proposed regulations that would restrict transferring mooring permits, the city has riled mooring holders. According to the Mooring Assn.'s website, its members plan to attend the Nov. 23 City Council meeting en masse.