Council pushes back on user fee

A woman runs on a trail in Newport Beach's Back Bay in 2008.
(DON LEACH / Daily Pilot)

The Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter to the state objecting to attempts to collect money from area residents who jog or hike along the Back Bay.

The letter says the council acknowledges that it’s rough going financially for state agencies right now, but collecting such a fee probably isn’t the best way to start filling the holes.

Mayor Keith Curry put it a little more bluntly before the vote.

“Apparently if you step off our street, you owe [the state] $4.32,” he said. “That’s a pretty dumb idea and I’m happy to sign that letter.”

The fee, which officials said has been on the books at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for several years, had never been collected in Newport.

So when signs recently appeared around the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve warning users that they needed a Lands Pass, which costs $4.32 for a day or $22.68 for the year, city officials and residents were confused.

Collecting the fee seems nearly impossible in an area that has countless access points, and a staff report echoed that confusion.

The letter will be sent to Carlton Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In other business, the council enthusiastically and unanimously approved a $1-per-year long-term lease with the Girl Scouts of Orange County for a spot at the planned Marina Park.

The 50-year lease will allow the organization to build and operate a new leadership center, where troops can meet and participate in overnight programs designed to help build interest in science and technology, among other activities.

Local Girl Scouts, sporting mint green and khaki uniforms covered in colorful patches, helped open the meeting by leading the Pledge of Allegiance and thanked council members for their support by presenting them with packages of cookies.

And when the item came up for vote, council members lauded the organization’s contributions to the city.

Councilman Tony Petros, who years ago served on the Girl Scouts of Orange County board, said his daughters were both Scouts.

“The return on the [investment of a below-market lease] can’t be calculated to the penny, but it’s priceless,” he said. “I, for one, am excited to see this move forward.

Not everyone, however, saw the move as positive.

Frequent council critic Jim Mosher said that while he fully supports the Girl Scouts’ mission, he wondered whether the lease was an inadequately researched gift of public funds and why the Girl Scouts in particular were chosen over other community groups.

He quipped that his comments would help demonstrate to the girls waiting for the vote that members of the public have the right to voice diverse viewpoints — even “unpopular opinions.”

Longtime community member Barbara “Corki” Rawlings, who moved to Newport in 1956 after being a girl scout in Santa Ana, said it’s about time for the organization to get some new digs. After addressing the council, she put her money where her mouth is by handing the city a $50 check — “for the whole lease,” she said.

Girl Scouts of Orange County Chief Executive Nancy Nygren said as she headed out of the meeting, “The girls are so excited” by the prospect of a new facility. She added that Rawling’s gesture was “a nice wrap-up” to the evening.

“We’re so excited about what we’re going to be able to do to enrich these girls on their leadership journeys,” she said.

The council also voted to move forward in officially removing an unenforced requirement that Santa Ana Heights residents have an annual use permit to keep three to six horses on their properties.

Despite concerns brought by a few residents, city staff members said that removing the requirement would not inhibit the city’s ability to enforce codes that prohibit commercial boarding of horses in that area.

Because of technicalities stemming from the area’s annexation by the city about a decade ago, the city must ask the county for permission to remove the requirement, which is what the council voted to do Tuesday.