By Jill Cowan
8:40 PM PST, November 20, 2012
Newport Beach city officials waded into another pool of public tidelands rent increases Tuesday at an afternoon study session, where they floated a proposal to increase residential pier fees from a flat $100 annually to 52.5 cents per square foot.
A dock's square footage, however, would not be based on the extension of property lines, as appraisals had suggested. Instead, under the proposed rent calculation method, harborfront homeowners would pay based on the area of their docks and floats, internal slip areas, plus up to 10 feet around the float. In a presentation, City Manager Dave Kiff showed examples of several residential docks, and how the proposed increases would affect them. Yearly rent totals ranged from $400 to $2,000.
The increases would be phased in over three periods from 2013 to 2015. The changes would also allow residential pier owners to rent out dock space — a practice that officials say already takes place but isn't legal.
The proposal, which likely will be tweaked before it's voted on at a later City Council meeting, is the next step in an ongoing effort to update rents that the city charges harbor stakeholders to use state-owned tidelands. Kiff has emphasized throughout discussions that the state requires the city to charge "fair market" rents for the use of public tidelands.
In 2010, the city tripled mooring fees and at its last meeting, approved a round of significant rent increases for commercial harbor users such as marina operators, yacht clubs and fuel docks.
Dozens of unhappy harbor stakeholders turned out for Tuesday's meeting, arguing that rent increases are veiled money grabs by the city and that the increases are too much to stomach on top of property taxes. Audience members scoffed and jeered each time a city official stressed anew that the rent increases are not, in fact, taxes.
Some questioned the reasoning behind imposing the same rent on all residential dock owners, no matter where they live on the harbor.
"I think location is extremely essential," said Lawrence Leifer, who said access to his dock is restricted, compared with other harbor homeowners. "I don't think my dock ought to be appraised the same as someone on Lido [Isle]."
Leifer said that the appraisals the city used as jumping-off points for the proposal were derived from commercial harbor uses, while residential dock owners theoretically don't have that opportunity to recoup costs.
"It's a private facility and I don't think it ought to be related," he said. "[The proposed rates are] much too high."
Other audience members voiced concern that those who've invested in the harbor by building and maintaining their own infrastructure shouldn't shoulder such a large portion of the city's tidelands improvement costs, from which Newport visitors and beachgoers also benefit.
The city has a public tidelands fund, which, in addition to paying for some physical harbor improvement, also pays for some lifeguarding services or beach-related emergency calls.
The city plans to sequester funds from the rent increases for physical harbor improvement projects — not public safety, Councilman Mike Henn said.
Henn and Kiff said that the increases would pay for only a portion of work that's already been done to improve the harbor, like various dredging projects, and that much of the work that's been done in recent years will be paid for through the city's general fund.
"We spend much more on the tidelands than we take in," Kiff said. He also stressed throughout the meeting that the rent increases would only apply to residential pier owners whose land sits along public tidelands, and that city staffers likely will talk with each individual pier owner about their how their rent is calculated.
Mayor Nancy Gardner reiterated that the entire spate of increases should have been tackled in the past at a slower rate that may have taken the edge off fee hikes.
"No other council wanted to do it," she said of raising rents.
Added Kiff: "It's horribly unpleasant."
Henn and Gardner encouraged residents to email them to voice their concerns. The issue could come up for a vote as early as Nov. 28, but the city may take more time to flesh out or adjust aspects of the proposal before bringing it before the full council.