NEWPORT BEACH — Since its remodeling, the Irvine Co.-owned Balboa Marina has become a not-so-fun zone in a conflict pitting public access against private property rights.
An ambiguous condition that required increased public access to the marina placed on the Irvine Co.’s 2007 plans by Newport Harbor Resources is under evaluation by City Atty. David Hunt to determine whether the terms have been satisfied, said Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.
According to documents presented to the Harbor Commission, the marina was downsized from 132 boat slips to 102, but with several slips that now meet the legal criteria for people with disabilities.
A map of the project also marked off a small section of the marina as “valet-temp dock,” which had the potential to satisfy the Harbor Commission’s condition that the project would increase public access between the water and land.
“The Irvine Co. has provided these docks, however, the question remains how publicly accessible they are,” Miller said.
Harbor Commissioner Ralph Rodheim called the slips a “farce.”
Located inside the private marina, which houses multimillion-dollar yachts, boaters must register with the Irvine Co. to get a key to the gates that close off the docks from the businesses along East Coast Highway and Bayside Drive.
A boater passing through without a key can dock his boat in one of the public slips — that is, if he can find the small sign just above water level identifying it — but once he exits through the gates, without a key he won’t be able to get back in, Rodheim said.
“I understand the issues of public use in a private marina,” Rodheim said about the concerns of yacht owners and heavy foot traffic between the docks and restaurants during peak tourist season. “But this is just another excuse not to offer public access. It is very disturbing that the Irvine Co. has the opportunity to be a good corporate neighbor and they’re not doing it.”
At the time of remodel, the California Coastal Commission approved the project as already having sufficient public access in the forms of East Coast Highway and access from Linda Isle, according to the 2008 staff report.
Citing these findings, the Irvine Co. has maintained that the five guest docks were a voluntary addition, said Robin Leftwich, Irvine Co. vice president of community affairs.
“As part of the approval process from the Coastal Commission, we agreed to continue to provide some public access,” Leftwich said. “The Harbor Commission asked for additional public access, but they did not specify what kind of access.”
Balboa Marina leases all of its slips, thus providing five free creates a substantial loss in revenue, Leftwich said.
Additionally, a guard is employed to monitor the marina and let boaters without keys through the locked gates.
However, there is not yet a guard employed 24 hours a day, which is why the locked gates and electronic keys that log arrival and departure times are important to safeguarding the marina, Leftwich said.
“People on the Harbor Commission believe that there should be 24-hour access, and we just don’t agree with that,” Leftwich said.
Because the condition was not written down and only verbalized at a 2007 Harbor Commission meeting, Miller pointed to the stamped-and-approved site map submitted by the Irvine Co.
As with any project going through the permitting process, once the city approves a project map, that is what is expected to be completed, he said.
The guest docks were to increase public access from water to land — not just from land to water, which was the criteria looked at by the Coastal Commission, Miller said.
Other solutions such as segregating the guest docks from the rest of the private marina, or relocating the docks to minimize the walking distance between the gate and the slips, would satisfy both the Irvine Co.’s need to protect its lessees and increase public access, Miller said.
Hunt said his office is working with the Irvine Co. to find a balance between the needs of the company and the condition placed by Harbor Resources.
“The access is much more limited than was anticipated,” he said. “This is an issue of what are the expectations of the parties involved and if the wording was not sufficiently clear.”
While Hunt did not say if a solution will be found anytime soon, the marina has been a recurring issue on the agenda at Harbor Commission meetings.
The next commission meeting, on Aug. 11, will discuss what items to focus on for the coming calendar year and it is likely that the Balboa Marina will receive some attention at that meeting, Rodheim said.