Newport could say no to bigger boats

NEWPORT BEACH — Some evenings, Brian Dougherty can glance out his bayfront window and literally catch the tail end of a wedding.

Charter captains thrust their 140-foot yachts into reverse, just yards from his house, churning the bay and pointing the wedding singer right toward him.

Dougherty speculates they are seeking the wedding album cover shot — picturesque Newport Beach with the sun setting over the harbor.

There may be fewer of such pictures if some of the harbor commissioners have their way.

On Tuesday, the commissioners will ask the City Council to hold off on approving a dock for the 148-foot Majestic, one of the largest boats in the harbor.

Members want to limit how far these large boats can extend into the harbor, a move that may effectively block Majestic and other massive charter boats from cruising in Newport.

"The big question for the city is, 'Do you want to have that kind of intensity and those size of ships?'" said Don Lawrenz, chairman of the Harbor Commission. "It never has been designed to be a commercial boat harbor."

Indeed, many of the channels are narrow and lined with homes on either side. Children and seniors race their boats in the main turning basin, right in the path of the large charter boats.

The large-boat charter fleet in Newport has grown to about 20 boats, and they have grown longer over the years. With the larger boats come louder groups. While there's a noise curfew at 10 p.m., some of the charter operators don't honor it, residents and other operators say.

"Most of them are considerate. Most are good neighbors, but you do get periods of time," Dougherty said. "It's like somebody having a party in your backyard at 11 p.m."

For other residents who have complained, "It's like a regatta for large ships," said Lawrenz.

They complain about the aesthetics of the ships — some are steel, boxy and tall.

"Our harbor's not big enough for those types of boats," said Ralph Rodheim, a harbor commissioner on the subcommittee that's drafting the proposed rules.

Whether Newport is big enough to handle a larger charter boat industry is another question.

The ships carry about 170,000 passengers per year. While sales have dipped during the recession, the industry still brings in more than $300,000 per year in permits and boarding taxes to the city.

"It's easy to sit back when you're not involved in the business," said Chandler Bell, director of marine operations for Hornblower Cruises & Events. "It could possibly affect so many jobs and companies — and income to the city."

He described parties that spill into local bars and restaurants, like the many people coming from inland who don't get to spend time on the bay very often, if at all. They might walk around Mariner's Mile and in Lido Marina Village — two economically struggling areas of the city.

"Because there are a few that don't like it," Bell said, "it could affect tens of thousands that do like it."

For those who'd like to curtail the massive boats, one proposal is to change the way the city measures how far a boat can extend past the end of its dock. As it stands, boats cannot protrude more than the width, or beam, of the boat. The harbor commissioners may recommend the city use another measure — a federal waterways boundary — to mark the maximum distance a ship hangs into the harbor.

In many places of the bay, boats already extend past this line. The city has accepted many of those docks to allow for shifting shorelines. But in some places, such as Mariner's Mile, where the Majestic and other massive charter boats are berthed, no such exceptions are on the books.

While the proposal is in its early stages, Rodheim said he could envision a five-year grace period where violating boats could be either sold or moved, but then after that the large boats would have to conform.

This would apply to both commercial charters and private boats.

"We'll come up with something that is fair for everybody involved," Rodheim said.

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