Jergler: Bill could tax some in Huntington Harbour

A bill to impose fees on the water beneath certain docks in Huntington Harbour is making its way through the Legislature.

The bill is an unnecessary tax that could negatively affect property values in the exclusive neighborhood and cause safety issues, opponents say.

But those pushing the bill say it's about fairness, bringing in line those who don't have to pay rent on the water with their neighbors who do

Senate Bill 152, authored by state Sen. Fran Pavely (D-Agorua Hills), would authorize the State Lands Commission to charge rent for the water space underneath private recreational piers. SB 152 essentially repeals portions of Public Resources Code 6503.5, which provides rent-free use of the water docks that occupy the main and mid channels of Huntington Harbour.

The law would apply only to state lands. It would amend the 1977 public resources code adopted by the Legislature, which found that there is "a substantial public benefit from the construction and maintenance of private recreational piers."

But the bill's proponents say it is arguable whether these benefits have materialized.

"The reality is that these recreational piers and buoys are generally used exclusively by the landowner for private purposes," an analysis in favor of the bill states. "In fact, many of these piers are fenced and can also block access to public areas, such as beaches."

According to the State Lands Commission, most of the rent-free leases are for piers in three areas: Lake Tahoe, the Sacramento River Delta and Huntington Harbour. The bill has passed the Senate and is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The bill's backers say there is a fairness issue, because owners of certain docks on state lands do not pay rent, while others do, depending on whether their docks are built on state land that happens to be managed by a local entity, such as the city or county.

Right now, those who don't pay rent are charged only an administrative fee of roughly $100 per year, the cost of preparing the rent-free lease.

Estimates are that about 25% of Huntington Harbour residents will be affected by the new fees.

"Senate Bill 152 resolves a fairness issue," Pavely, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, said in an email. "All owners of private piers built over state lands should be treated equally and in a manner that preserves the public interest in state lands."

SB 152 opponents see the issue differently.

"I think it's very unfair," said Assemblyman Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach).

Silva, who views the bill as a move by the State Lands Commission to gain revenues, lives in Huntington Harbour. He has a dock, but it would not be affected because he owns the water rights below it.

Silva said safety is his concern. He cited an incident last summer where two men were killed in a boating mishap, with a third man involved surviving because he was able to swim to a nearby dock and hang on.

"If it had not been for a dock, there would have been three men dead, not two," said Silva.

He said that each year the Sheriff's Harbor Patrol rescues more than 1,500 people in distress in the Huntington Harbour area.

Frank Singer is one resident who would be affected if the bill passes. Singer has already taken on a battle over state taxes on Huntington Harbour residents. He and some of his neighbors fought unsuccessfully on a $4.50-per-square-foot tax on cantilever decks that extend from homes over the water.

"This comes to approximately $1,000 per year for each homeowner," Singer said of the fees on the decks.

Like Silva, Singer also views this as a safety issue.

"Refuge is even more important today than it was about 40 years ago," Singer said, adding that then, virtually all water traffic at the time was boats. "Today, personal watercraft numbering in the thousands — including kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, peddle boats, swimmers — make up the majority of water traffic. What would be the cost of saving just one [person from] drowning?"

Both Silva and Singer also argue that the bill could hurt property values.

"Imposing a charge for docks would be akin to paying another mortgage," Singer said. "A home's value is a function of how much a monthly payment one can afford. By essentially doubling the monthly carrying cost of homes affected by SB 152 can only reduce how much one can afford to pay."

Singer's concern is the bill could allow the State Lands Commission to charge the $4.50 per square foot it charges for the cantilever decks for the docks, many of which extend out to the water 60-feet. He believes the State Land Commission could charge up to $16,000 a year for some homes.

Pavely's office noted that the State Lands Commission will base the rent on property values, and that the benchmark for Huntington Harbour will be only about $400 a year, even for the most expensive of the multimillion dollar houses that line the water.

According to Pavely's office, the bill will raise about $2.25 million over 10 years for the state. As it's currently written, the bill doesn't allow the state to interrupt existing leases.

Any leases in effect as of July 1 cannot be charged rent until the lease runs out, or for those who submitted an application to build a dock by March 31, until that lease expires in 10 years, Pavely's aides said.

Curtis Fossum, executive director of the State Lands Commission, which has sponsored the bill, could not be immediately reached for comment.

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