The California Coastal Commission just doesn’t see Newport Harbor as a port.
Newport Beach Councilman Scott Peotter and Don Schmitz, a lobbyist the city contracted, traveled to the commission’s meeting in Redondo Beach on Thursday to support a bill that could help the city achieve port status and to ask the commission for an additional month to make a case for the city’s idea for a port master plan.
They were largely unsuccessful. Some observers at the meeting even found the idea laughable.
The commission voted 9-3, with members Erik Howell, Ryan Sundberg and Roberto Uranga dissenting, to oppose Assembly Bill 1196, which would amend the California Coastal Act to establish Newport Beach as a port — a status it needs before it can seek a port master plan. It would join Los Angeles, Long Beach, Hueneme and San Diego, all deepwater industrial ports.
With the port master plan, the city could issue state-sanctioned permits for in-water harbor projects such as small dredging work and private pier repair — much like it handles development on land close to shore through its Coastal Commission-granted local coastal program, which went into effect last year. But it would retain its nature as a recreational harbor, officials say.
Thursday’s commission vote doesn’t directly affect the bill’s outcome in the Legislature, but it does firm up the opposition that commission staff laid out in a report before the meeting.
Commission legislative analyst Sarah Christie said the agency’s staff was concerned about the precedent it would set to re-label a municipal harbor as a port and cede the commission’s authority. She said one could sympathize with the desire of a local government to want to take some control but said it’s outside the boundaries of the Coastal Act.
“The problem is, quite simply and sort of obviously, is that the city of Newport Beach’s municipal harbor is not a port,” Christie said to laughter from the audience. “For a municipal harbor to be managed under a port master plan, it’s like the wrong suit of clothes for it.”
Ports are distinct from municipal harbors, of which there are dozens around California, in that the harbors focus on recreation and generally light commercial uses like sportfishing, she said.
Peotter said Newport is looking for an efficient way to address its aging infrastructure and is committed to working with the commission.
“Newport Harbor is unique even amongst recreational harbors,” he said.
Schmitz said Newport Harbor fits the dictionary definition of “port” — “Webster’s defines a port as a place where ships may ride out secure from storms.”
He said it’s also an economic hub and a home for ship repair facilities, the Coast Guard and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol.
Christie said the four existing ports have their own governing bodies and thus their own plans, which give highest priority for industrial port uses. One reason for port plans is for ports to modernize and manage their activities without a need to create new ports, she said.
Commissioner Mark Vargas also said Newport isn’t a good fit for port status.
“Port of L.A., Port of Long Beach, Port Hueneme, Port San Diego. Port of Newport?” he said, drawing more chuckles from the audience. “One of these things is not like the other.”
Christie said commission staff reached out with a list of concerns to the office of AB 1196’s sponsor, Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach), soon after the bill was introduced.
Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth suggested Newport Beach consider other available management mechanisms, such as master permits or a public works plan.
“I don’t want to waste any of the city’s time or staff’s time pursuing this legislation,” Ainsworth said. “Let’s work on those other mechanisms that are authorized under the act and move forward.”
But Uranga, who also is a city councilman in Long Beach, said he empathized with Newport and did not consider it a waste of time to try to work things out.
Peotter said that if after a month the city didn’t see a way to proceed, he would support the bill’s withdrawal.
Christie didn’t see a reason for optimism.
“I don’t see us getting any new information that would change our perspective on the proposal,” she said. “We take legislative changes to the Coastal Act very seriously.”