OC, State Regulators Raise Concerns Over Public Access in Dana Point Harbor Developers’ Plans

Dana Point Harbor.

The long-awaited redevelopment of Dana Point Harbor just cleared a state hurdle to move forward. 

But California regulators and local stakeholders are raising concerns over whether the developers tasked with revitalizing the marina truly plan to ensure boating and harbor access to the general public — not just the wealthy.

On one hand, state Coastal Commissioners approved a permit allowing the harbor plans’ marina element to proceed in a unanimous vote at a Wednesday meeting.

Some commissioners praised the project’s developer firm — an LLC known as the Dana Point Harbor Partners — for agreeing to include an educational program for youth from low-income or “underserved” communities as a component of the project, teaching kids skills like sailing. 

The developer firm also plans to upgrade older facilities like docks to make them more accessible to people with disabilities, and bring public access areas closer to the waterfront.

Read: Supervisors OK Dana Point Harbor Overhaul; Harbor Patrol Could Drain Countywide Park Funds

On the other hand, some Coastal Commissioners and staff in a report voiced worry that the project could take away recreational boating opportunities from the general public — as well as underserved communities — due to what staff say will be a “net loss of smaller slips (boats’ allotted spaces at the docks)” and a decrease in lower-cost boating opportunities.

The project would also increase the amount of space for larger boats. And yacht space will increase from 11 boat slips to 13 slips under the redevelopment project.

“This proposed project would result in the loss of 155 boat slips and a greater share of the total slips for larger and more expensive boats,” said Jonah Breslau of UNITE HERE Local 11, a labor union that represents local hotel and hospitality industry workers. “A decrease in recreational boating use is yet another threat to coastal access for people like the members of UNITE HERE Local 11.”

And one local boat rental company owner, Marc Levine, is threatening legal action against the Dana Point Harbor Partners, claiming they’re limiting the operations of companies like his, which he says “offer more cost effective solutions than boat ownership that help increase coastal access to underserved communities.”

“DPHP is not an organization that wants to contribute to environmental justice. Their actions from day one in the marina were focused on raising prices. The plan set forth and their actions thus far intend to serve the wealthy, and better serve themselves,” Levine, who owns the boat rental company AllWater, said in public comment Wednesday.

Levine also claimed the developers have charged improper fees for his company’s boat spaces at the docks. 

Dana Point Harbor Partners representative Joseph Ueberroth during Wednesday’s meeting denied Levine’s claims in front of Coastal Commissioners. 

“The issue is we’re not expanding charters and taking it away from recreational boaters … they just want to expand more boats,” Ueberroth said to the board. “Right now we’re not expanding charters, but we’re supporting all the charters that exist.”

Public access is also “not just about boating,” Ueberroth said, adding “it’s about being able to offer amenities for everybody.” He pointed to the plans to bring public access areas and the harbor’s parkscape closer to the water. 

A special condition in the Coastal Commission also requires the Dana Point Harbor Partners to maintain 435 free public parking spaces in the area.

But Coastal Commissioner Mike Wilson during the meeting said boat rental companies “far expand public access” for those who want to take a boat out on the water and that limiting them “is a detriment in terms of who can access.”

Asked by Wilson what reason the Dana Point Harbor Partners would have to limit boat rental companies’ activities at the harbor, Ueberroth said it stems from demand.

There are only so many boat slips, and Ueberotth said his firm has an “extensive waitlist” of people who are in line for one and have waited for years.

The underserved youth education program under the firm’s proposal will provide hands-on ocean education for students, while also requiring that at least 10% of kids participating gain hands-on sailing experience.

Asked by Coastal Commissioner Zahira Mann why that minimum threshold of students wasn’t higher to ensure more kids could get to go out and sail, Ueberroth said the harbor isn’t as large as other harbors and again cited demand.

“I don’t think there’s a demand for it – we’re hoping to give an umbrella of options and see what the community really wants,” he said.

Mann responded by saying that perhaps sailing demand isn’t so high because people who aren’t from these wealthy communities “never felt they had access to it before.”

“So by having that marketing attached to it, you may get more demand than you dreamed of,” she added, “because people will now see themselves as able to access an activity that they were sort of excluded from in the past.”

The developers also had their supporters at the Wednesday meeting among members of the public, like Denise Erkeneff of the Orange County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal advocacy group.

“We of course feel the applicant is doing all the right things with upgrades to bring the harbor into the 21st Century,” she said. “We do look forward to working with the Harbor Partners on environmental justice, education and recreational programs for underserved children up to the high school level in Orange County.”

Yet she added she would like “more specifics on the programmatic elements” of the underserved youth education component of the proposal, with possible additions like surfing and bodyboarding lessons included. 

Many of the buildings and facilities at the harbor were built in the early 1970s, and are in need of infrastructure upgrades and renovations.

The public-private partnership between the county and the firm to revitalize the area — which is set to last over more than six decades — was initially approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2018, after decades of slow governmental progress and taxpayer dollar spending on studies and plans to get the revitalization off the ground. 

The plan was also amended by Dana Point City Council members back in July to reduce the square footage of boat service facilities to 6,800 square-feet. 

The Dana Point Harbor Partners also plan on building a lower-cost, affordable hotel and a market-rate hotel — which would replace the Marina Inn — in the area.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.