Newport abandons port master plan after Coastal Commission’s thumbs-down

Newport Beach is dropping its attempt to form a port master plan intended to give the city more direct control over some types of development in Newport Harbor after the California Coastal Commission cast a disapproving eye on the proposal.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday night, with member Scott Peotter dissenting, to abandon the effort. Instead, the council may consider other plans to manage small in-water projects such as dock rebuilds and minor dredging.

Councilman Jeff Herdman was absent Tuesday, and Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield recused himself because of his business interests in the harbor.

Don Schmitz, the lobbyist the city retained as its advocate to the Coastal Commission, gave the council an optimistic yet frank assessment of the commission’s recent reaction to the first step in the port plan process: a proposed amendment to the California Coastal Act to legally designate Newport Harbor as a port.

“I believe that their position is pretty much galvanized in opposition,” Schmitz said. “I think one of the things that’s very telling at this point, both in the staff report and in the comments of several commissioners, was that they are bridling over what is seen as an usurpation of their authority and their jurisdiction.”

The city would want substantive amendments to Assembly Bill 1196, a state bill that would grant Newport Beach port status, showing the city had listened to the commission’s concerns, Schmitz said. He suggested highlighting Newport’s size and economic importance as setting it apart from other municipal harbors and narrowing the focus with assurance that the harbor would not become an industrial port.

Schmitz said development of Newport’s Sunset Ridge Park, Marina Park and eelgrass management plan also initially were hard sells with the state, but now the city has all three.

“When Newport Beach has prevailed, it has prevailed because it has been highly professional, it has brought good arguments and sound compromises to the table and eventually won over the Coastal Commission and the staff,” he said.

The commission voted 9-3 on April 12 to oppose AB 1196 by Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach), which would amend the Coastal Act to designate Newport’s largely recreational harbor as a port and put it among the likes of the deepwater industrial ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Hueneme and San Diego.

Opponents say the port label simply isn’t appropriate for Newport Beach. Observers even laughed a couple of times during the commission meeting when staff and commissioners said as much.

The plan would allow Newport to issue state-sanctioned permits for small in-water harbor projects much like it handles development on land close to shore through its Coastal Commission-granted local coastal program.

Councilwoman Diane Dixon liked some aspects of the port plan, such as local control, but said there are too many unknowns, plus the risk of damaging the city’s relationship with the commission.

“Are we willing to put that at risk and put a finger in the eye of the Coastal Commission and say, ‘We know more than you, and this is the most important improvement that we want to make?’” she said.

Dixon suggested studying alternatives in a few months. Those could include a public works plan and a master permit for docks to streamline the permitting process.

City Manager Dave Kiff said the port master plan would give the city more flexibility and control but added that a public works plan and master permit for docks don’t require amending the Coastal Act.

The Coastal Commission’s vote doesn’t directly affect the outcome for AB 1196 in the state Legislature. But commission legislative analyst Sarah Christie, the key staff member in opposition, has a lot of influence in the Legislature, Kiff said, and he’s not sure the bill could overcome that.

Peotter, who traveled to the commission meeting in Redondo Beach to try to sell the port plan, said the roadblock was frustrating.

He sought to forge ahead at least until the June state Senate hearings for AB 1196, but his motion died for lack of a second.

“A lot of the docks that I see out there are in disrepair,” Peotter said. “It’s not like we’re going broke and Newport Beach is falling apart. But the harbor is probably our most valuable asset in the city and a lot of dock owners aren’t maintaining their docks at the level they probably would if it wasn’t for the permits, red tape and cost to actually get permission to do the work.”

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