Dock use making waves for lifeguards

County parks officials want to charge Newport Beach lifeguards to store their rescue boats at a public guest dock, even though for decades the guards have used the slips at no cost.

As local governments fend for every dollar, Newport leaders have pushed back and argued that the city's residents already pay their fair share for county harbor services. In the meantime, lifeguards have been storing their boats at a marina farther from the harbor entrance.

Officials say that the current arrangement is unsafe for beachgoers and for bay boaters.

"I understand that every government is looking to increase revenues," said Newport Beach Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, "but this, to me, could be a real safety issue."

Lifeguards now store their yellow Sea Watch boats at the Balboa Yacht Basin, a city-owned marina between the west end of Balboa Island and Bayside Drive. It can them take 10 minutes longer to reach the surfline if they leave from there instead of the county docks.

Guards also run the risk of creating large wakes when speeding through calm, narrow channels near that marina. Wakes can push boats against docks and damage both, and also can upend paddleboarders, kayaks and other small craft.

In a more open part of the harbor, the county docks are at the Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol headquarters farther south on Bayside Drive. For as long as anyone can remember, the Newport guards have kept their boats at adjoining guest slips. But when OC Parks, the agency that manages the land, refurbished the docks earlier this year, Newport had to move its boats.

Once the docks were finished in late May, county officials said the city would have to pay if the guards wanted to return.

Officials haven't yet discussed a price, said Rich Adler, real estate manager for OC Parks.

"What about the compensation for … displacing the public's guest docks?" asked Adler. "They're really there for the public to use."

Gardner counters that Newport residents pay more into the county parks fund than the county spends on Newport's Harbor Patrol, and that other revenues mostly pay for the county-run Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center and Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve.

Adler, in turn, argues that Newport residents use county parks in Irvine and beyond, so they should pay for some of their expenses. County supervisors from inland cities have also contended that Newport should pay more of the harbor costs directly, instead of using the general parks fund, which is funded by residents throughout the county.

"We're dealing with those bigger issues of who funds the Harbor Patrol," said Adler, who acknowledged that most boaters in Newport actually come from inland and launch at a public ramp. "But those are such broad arguments."

The county has nine guest slips, two of which are taken by state lifeguards and two of which have traditionally been used by Newport. The remaining public slips are rented out for $40 per night, and officials say that they aren't always filled.

Adler said parks officials are negotiating a short-term agreement that would allow the lifeguards to return to the Harbor Patrol guest slips for free, but they would seek a broader lease agreement.

Harbormaster Lt. Tom Slayton tried to accommodate the guards during the busy Independence Day weekend, and allowed them to keep their boats on the Sheriff's docks. But he has to follow directions from OC Parks officials to keep the guest docks open to the public.

"I hope that an agreement is reached because I believe that the lifeguards need to respond quickly," Slayton said.

The beaches that lifeguards respond to are owned by the city, not the county, with many visitors also from inland communities.

Lifeguard Battalion Chief Rob Williams declined to comment, other than saying that he hopes to continue a long and congenial relationship with the Harbor Patrol.

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