Dock fee lawsuit settled

A group of Newport Beach dock owners has come to an agreement with the city over a lawsuit alleging that council members violated state transparency laws when they enacted a controversial rent increase for the use of public tidelands.

The agreement could bring to a close more than a year of intense debate and protracted negotiations over the ordinance, which bumped up the rent for private residential docks over state-owned waters from a flat annual fee of $100 to 52.5 cents per square foot per year.

The initial increase was passed in December 2012, though the city has since made minor changes to the way a dock’s area is calculated for rent-assessment purposes.

Bob McCaffrey, chairman of the Newport Beach Dock Owners Assn., announced in a news release that the group agreed to drop its lawsuit on the condition that the city revise the ordinance.

“It is unfortunate that we had to sue our own city to restore the equity in our docks that [the city stole] in passing the dock tax,” McCaffrey said in a statement.

Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, McCaffrey said the group spent about $140,000 fighting the ordinance.

Provided that the City Council approves the changes dictated in the settlement, the revised ordinance will allow pier owners to renew their permits on a 10-year basis, rather than annually.

The revised ordinance would also allow the pier permit to transfer to the new buyer of property upland from a given pier, according to a settlement document.

The proposed revisions will not change the rent structure, and no money will change hands as a result of the lawsuit.

Since the lawsuit was filed in February 2013, the city has denied that a council committee that discussed the rent changes violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meetings law. The settlement does not admit any wrongdoing on the city’s part.

City Atty. Aaron Harp said that while the settlement won’t be finalized until the council approves it, probably later this month, “We’re all moving on with life.”

McCaffrey said a political action committee affiliated with the Newport Beach Dock Owners Assn., known as Stop the Dock Tax, is winding down.

But, he added, the association will remain active, advocating and fundraising for a slate of council candidates who will “change the direction this city is going.”

He said the association is in the process of interviewing candidates and will take a position in the near future.

“We’d like to see [Newport Beach] change from an arrogant city to council people who listen,” he said. “So I expect to be very active.”