Newport wants a port master plan, but don’t expect cargo and cruise ships

Even if Newport Harbor gets desired “port” status from the state for planning and development purposes, it won’t become an industrial port similar to Long Beach, local officials say.

Newport Beach has started what could be a lengthy two-part process to get approval for a port master plan from the California Coastal Commission. It would allow the city to issue state-sanctioned permits for in-water harbor projects such as small dredging work and private pier repair.

The first step is that the harbor needs to be legally designated as a port, which requires the state Legislature to amend the California Coastal Act to include it alongside the commercial port districts of Hueneme, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Diego — well-established transportation and industrial hubs. Once it’s a “port,” the Coastal Commission can accept a port master plan application.

“First you have to get the key to the door (and) unlock it,” City Manager Dave Kiff said. “That’s the legislation.”

A bill introduced last month by Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach) is in the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee. The City Council agreed last week to hire lobbyists to advocate for the port status.

The bill has until Aug. 31 to clear both houses of the Legislature if it is to pass this legislative session.

Harper said he hopes the bill will be seen as a pragmatic amendment to the Coastal Act.

“Newport Harbor is not just used by people from Newport Beach,” he said. “It’s used regionally … and that’s why I think the (Legislature) will buy on from throughout Southern California and California, because people utilize this recreational harbor through such a wide geography across the state.”

Kiff said the port label is a matter of semantics — not a green light for cargo or cruise ships.

The 21-square-mile harbor is regarded as the city’s economic and cultural anchor, with one economic impact study saying it’s worth more than $200 million a year. Among its mooring fields, private docks and handful of commercial marinas and shipyards, the harbor is home to about 4,300 boats, largely pleasure craft, the city estimates.

“We would never and could never be anything larger than that,” Kiff said.

But a port master plan would save time, allowing the city to grant permissions following state guidelines, much the way it does for near-shore land developments under its state-sanctioned Local Coastal Program.

Currently, most of the state permits issued in the harbor are for dock adjustments, which initially go through the city’s harbor resources division.

Harbor Manager Chris Miller said city staff gives “approvals in concept” to about 50 applications a year, though the Coastal Commission has the ultimate discretion. Once an application is in the state’s hands, a decision generally takes several months, Miller said.

Recent Coastal Commission items corroborate that. In December, the commission approved a permit for a Balboa Peninsula homeowner to reduce his dock by about 30 square feet and move a pile five feet. The city had approved the project in concept in September.

In November, the commission granted an application for a Linda Isle homeowner to add about 70 square feet to his dock. The plans were dated in June.

Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said it may take two to five years for a port master plan to be processed, about as long as it would take to put a new Local Coastal Program in place. (Newport’s LCP took 12 years, Kiff said.)

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