Newport Beach City Council members on Tuesday approved a plan to hike fees on residential docks in city-owned areas of Newport Harbor amidst protests and threats of litigation.
The decision, largely fueled by rising public safety costs at the harbor, came on a 5-1 vote, with Councilwoman Leslie Daigle opposing and Councilman Ed Selich abstaining.
The vote is expected to trigger a strike of sorts among many harbor residents with a movement to shut off their decorative lights in protest during the city’s popular annual Christmas boat parade.
On Tuesday, council members approved a new dock fee rate of 52.5 cents per square foot, with a 2 percent cap on increases after a five-year phase-in. That would raise most fees from the current $100 flat rate to more than $400, with some larger yacht docks costing more than $3,000 a year. Residents will also be allowed to rent their piers at the small commercial marina rate of $1.26 per square foot.
Council members last month seemed to be moving full steam ahead with the plan until residents showed up in droves to oppose it.
City officials defended their approach as the fiscally responsible thing to do: charging a fair market value for the docks and having dock users contribute more to harbor maintenance costs.
“The fact that the general fund substantially subsidizes the cost of our harbor is an important issue for the other taxpayers in this city. So for me we have to maintain a balance here,” said Councilman Michael Henn. “The money that is being raised here will be spent in the harbor.”
He added that the last time city leaders did an appraisal and raised the fees was more than 23 years ago.
Opponents took issue with the manner in which council members approached the issue with dozens packing the council chambers on Tuesday night and more than 20 directly addressing the council.
“This tax increase would cripple our beautiful harbor,” said Bobby McCracken, a local high school student. He described the fee increase as not only excessive but wrong from a moral standpoint.
A representative of state Sen. Mimi Walters also told council members the increase would be a “gross violation of private property rights.”
In response, some on the council said it’s difficult to believe complaints that a few extra hundred dollars per year will be a major hardship. Newport Beach is often ranked as one of the nation’s wealthiest cities.
Opponents also allege that city officials broke the state open-meetings law by meeting in secret on the issue.
There were threats of a lawsuit against the city. A recent letter from the Newport Beach Dock Owners Association asserted that nonpublic meetings on the issue between three council members “did not comply with all of the constitutional protections of the Brown Act.”
Several homeowners at Tuesday’s meeting were fired up about a potential legal battle.
“We have the resources, and if the city wants to tango, we’re delighted,” said resident Tom Larkin. “We have beaten you before, and we will beat you again.”
City officials, however, said they are confident they followed the law.
“We know we complied with the Brown Act,” said City Manager Dave Kiff, describing the meetings as part of a working group, which caries different legal implications under state law.
Good-government advocates have expressed concern over such groups, with some viewing the secret meetings as a tactic for elected leaders to skirt the Brown Act while still making policy in secret.
In this case, open-government expert Terry Francke said officials most likely didn’t violate the law if they kept their committee to three members, that is, less than a majority.
City officials said the extra money is needed to help pay for increasing harbor costs, which now top $24.4 million a year. At present the harbor brings in $10.5 million in revenues, less than half the amount needed.
The new residential dock fees will rake in about $1 million in yearly revenue once phased in, said Kiff.
The bulk of those costs — more than 70 percent — are for public safety.