A group opposed to the city of Newport Beach's ongoing effort to increase fees for the use of public tidelands is urging harbor denizens to boycott the city's annual Christmas Boat Parade in protest of a new round of proposed rent hikes for residential docks.
The council will consider voting on the proposed changes, which would raise residential dock rents from a flat $100 per year to 52.5 cents per square foot per year, at 6 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall, 3300 Newport Blvd.
In a news release Tuesday, backers of the group Stop the Dock Tax asked property owners who normally participate in the parade to keep their vessels and homes dark during this year's parade, an event that has lit up the harbor each holiday season for more than a century.
The parade, which is put on by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, is scheduled for the evenings of Dec. 19 through 23.
"It costs us thousands of dollars to voluntarily decorate our homes and boats to bring holiday smiles to nearly 1 million people," organization Chairman Bob McCaffrey wrote in the release. "This year, we are turning off our lights and withdrawing our boats in protest of the massive new dock tax we expect the City Council to levy at [a Wednesday special meeting.]"
City officials have emphasized that the fee hikes are rents for the use of public resources — not taxes.
Chamber President and Chief Executive Richard Luehrs said widespread participation in the boycott could be devastating for the parade, which he said "has a multimillion-dollar economic impact."
Harborside homes that go all out for the Ring of Lights decoration contest, along with individual boat owners, make up the majority of parade participants and are the biggest draws for visitors, he said.
"That would be tragic. I'm sorry to hear it," Luehrs said upon being told of the boycott. "A lot of local businesses depend on visitors coming to our community to participate in our parade and if a lot of boat owners and homeowners participated in such an activity [as a boycott], that would be unfortunate."
He said chamber representatives have participated in negotiations over the harbor rent increases and have followed the issue carefully.
While the chamber recognizes "the city's interest in raising revenue, we think it might've gone a little too far too fast."
Councilman Mike Henn, who has been involved in the rent increase negotiations on behalf of the city, said he had caught wind of the boycott and that it is, of course, well within residents' rights to take part.
"They're entitled to do whatever they wish," he said. "I don't think that's a substantive way to address the issues that need to be addressed."
Pete Pallette, a harbor homeowner who spoke on behalf of Stop the Dock Tax, said the group sees the boycott as one of the only ways left to get the council's attention.
"I can't imagine anybody's going to be thrilled with [the boycott.] I'm certainly not," he said. "I have my grandchildren coming to town."
But, he said, the increases are too much.
"I think [the boycott] is a fairly recent subject and it's based on the fact that the city seems to resist our best efforts to talk to us about realistic increases," he said. "I don't think anyone's against adjustments, but these things are so punitive and egregious that we have to speak up."
And the boycott, he said, "seems to be potentially an effective negotiating tool."
Pallette said if the city is willing "to postpone this action," and meet again with stakeholders, the group would be open to withdrawing the boycott.
Henn said he couldn't say whether the possibility of a boycott will impact the council's decision Wednesday.
"What I will say is that the best way to impact an issue is to engage in a substantive discussion of it," he said. "We've got a council meeting tomorrow night, and there are many other opportunities between meetings [to engage]."
He added that he hasn't received many emails on the subject, which is one option for residents to lay out their opinions on city matters.
Another opportunity for harbor stakeholders to make their voices heard, he said, was at last week's workshop on the residential dock rent increases.
And make their voices heard, they did — to a point.
Whereas the previous proposal called for phasing in the increase over three years through 2015, the new one increases that period to five years, through 2017, according to a staff report.
Also under the new proposal, square footage will be comprised of the area of the float, gangway, internal slip and up to 10 feet around the float, minus any unusable areas on a dock's "backside." The city will determine on an individual basis if a portion of a dock is unusable. The initial proposal did not account for unusable dock areas.
Another tweak included in the new proposal eliminates a $1-million requirement for general liability insurance. Dock permits would require insurance, but not for a specified amount.
One provision of the proposal that did not change — despite complaints that property values are unequal and thus shouldn't be charged the same rent — sets the rent at 52.5 cents per square foot, regardless of a dock's location on the harbor.
City officials have stressed that the increases, which will affect about 970 harborside homeowners with piers on public tidelands, will not impact residential piers on private or county waterways.
Areas such as Dover Shores, Linda Isle, Promontory Bay and Harbor Island will not be affected by the increases, the report said.
Residential pier rent increases are the latest in a line of fee hikes for public tidelands users. City officials have said the increases are updates to rates that are way out of line with the current market.
At a meeting earlier this month, the council approved a round of significant rent increases for commercial harbor users such as marina operators, yacht clubs and fuel docks, and in 2010, the city tripled mooring fees.
While harbor stakeholders, including Stop the Dock Tax members and supporters, have vehemently argued against the rent increases, calling them unfair taxes, city officials say the actions are a kind of necessary evil to ensure that the city is complying with state mandates to charge fair market rates.
Furthermore, officials have said, the funds generated from the increases will be put toward much-needed, expensive harbor improvements, like various dredging projects, which have drawn from the city's general fund.