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Boaters will pay much less for a Newport Harbor mooring, the City Council decides

Boats sit at moorings in West Lido Channel in Newport Bay.
(File photo / DAILY PILOT)

The Newport Beach City Council decided Tuesday night to sharply reduce annual fees related to harbor moorings, ending a years-long debate between city leaders and boaters.

The City Council voted 5 to 2 to reduce the cost of offshore moorings from $55.43 per foot of a boat to $35 per foot. The council also voted to reduce the fees for onshore moorings to $17.50 per foot of a boat down from the previous rate of $27.21 per foot.

Onshore moorings are typically less expensive because they are intended for smaller vessels, according to city staff.

The cost and availability of moorings, which are considered to be a more affordable way for people to take advantage of boating in Newport Beach than marinas, has been a hotly debated topic among boaters for more than five years in Newport Beach.

“This is akin to a type of slum lord,” Councilman Marshall “Duffy” Duffield said, noting a perceived lack of amenities for mooring holders. “You don’t go there to reap higher profits and moneys. The product you’re looking at is akin to a slum apartment. We’re lucky to get $35 a foot.”

In a controversial vote in 2010, the council decided to nearly triple the cost of mooring fees, which had not been increased since 1996. The move, which infuriated boaters, came three years after an Orange County Grand Jury investigation determined that the city was allegedly mismanaging the mooring process and that the moorings on public tidelands weren’t readily available to the public under the city system.

Among the specific findings, the grand jury said the city hadn’t assessed the moorings’ fair market value since the mid-1990s.

At that time, the council voted to peg moorings at 14% of the average Newport marina rent, which raised the fee incrementally over five years from about $20 per foot of a boat to about $55 per foot. That increased the annual mooring cost for a 40-foot boat from about $800 to about $2,200.

“We ask that the council decides tonight that enough is enough and choose to move forward,” said Carter Ford, Newport Mooring Assn. member. “It’s really bad for everyone as we see it … not to get this done tonight.”

The process of beginning to reduce mooring fees began in February 2015, when the council cut the cost of residential pier fees and also tasked the Harbor Commission with assessing harbor moorings.

After several months of public meetings, where topics such as cost, transfer rules and other issues were robustly discussed with officials and mooring holders, the Harbor Commission recommended the council more than halve the city’s annual permit fee for offshore moorings from $55.43 per foot of a boat to $25 per foot. Some council members at the time said they would be more comfortable with the offshore mooring rate around $35 per foot.

Money collected from mooring fees is placed in the tidelands fund, which pays for capital improvement projects inside the harbor, according to city staff. City leaders have identified bulkhead repairs and sealing, harbor pier and gangway maintenance, dredging projects and sea wall repairs as some of the projects that money in the tidelands fund could begin to cover this year.

Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller estimates that the lower fees will cause a $700,000 annual reduction to the tidelands fund.

Councilmen Keith Curry and Ed Selich voted against the fee reduction, pointing to a letter received last week from the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over land held by the state of California, that raised concerns about the appraisal conducted by Netzer and Associates. City staff used the appraisal to base their recommendation to the council.

Sheri Pemberton, chief of the external affairs division for the State Lands Commission, wrote in the letter that “based on our review the appraisal lacks important supporting discussion and analysis in a number of areas, which may affect the determination of fair market rent.”

Pemberton went on to ask the city to defer the issue to a later meeting.

“We are putting ourselves at risk,” Curry said. “We are at risk of the State Lands Commission coming in and setting fees in a way that I don’t think anyone would like.”