Commentary: Pier fees are fair price for public asset

Tidelands are most of the water areas in Newport Harbor that are located below the mean high tide line. The state owns those Tidelands.

The city of Newport Beach manages most of those Tidelands under a public trust agreement with the state. No private party has the right to use those Tidelands unless paying a fee to do so. For too many years the city never raised those Tidelands fees. This City Council has properly decided to do so, to charge a more market rate fee for a very valuable property right — the right of a private user to use a public asset.

I have rented boat slip space in Newport Harbor for more than 34 years. My starting rate was $2 per foot per month (then $60 per month). My 2013 rate will be $28.75 per foot per month, a 14-fold increase: $850 per month ($10,350 per year) for my 30-foot slip. Throughout that period each slip I rented was located on Tidelands. Many of the slips I rented were located within private piers.

I have followed the private pier fee increases approved last week by the City Council and the strident objections to those increases. The actual increases range from $250 to $4,100 per year, depending on the surface area of each Tidelands dock area. The current rate is $100 per year, no matter what the size of the dock. The private piers are attached to some of the highest priced real estate in our city.

So, why the big rumble by so many of the private pier owners? Why should they object so strongly to now start paying a more market rate for something they don't own — the right to have permanent piers and boat slips over Tidelands?

Why muddle the issue by calling this Tidelands fee a tax versus what it is — the fee, cost or rent to use something they don't own in exchange for getting the exclusive right to use and enjoy (and also profit, if they rent out space) their piers and boat slips that extend over the Tidelands?

Those private piers would be worth far, far less if they stopped at the high tide line and did not extend into the water over Tidelands. These Tideland fees in the end are no more a tax than the rent I pay to have the exclusive right to use and enjoy my boat in its slip.

I do agree that the city could have done a far better job educating the Tidelands users and selling this global Tidelands fee increase. And I do expect the city to segregate Tidelands fees for exclusive Harbor uses. But without a legal basis exempting the private pier owners from paying their share of those increased fees, there seems scant justification for their strident objections and threats, and also for their intended boycott of this year's Christmas Boat Parade.

Maybe they do have a legal basis, or intend to change California law, or change the makeup of our City Council, but until they do, then why treat the private pier owners differently from the rest of the Tideland users? And why should the rest of us who do pay Tideland fees (either directly or as part of our boat-slip rent) subsidize the private pier owners who benefit from the city's work in the Tidelands? That same subsidy question also applies more broadly to all city's taxpayers when the city uses general funds to pay for work in the Tidelands. We are a better city than to get press headlines over this issue.

JOHN HEFFERNAN is a former Newport Beach mayor.

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