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The $400 million redevelopment of Dana Point Harbor and its potential to knock boaters out of the publicly-owned docks has come under increasing challenge over the last few months, through critical letters, public comment campaigns, and now a planned public protest.

A demonstration is scheduled for today at noon, near the Henry Dana statue on the island side of the harbor, organized by local boaters, some of whom even live out of their vessels.

The main contention among locals are what they term as “outrageous” new fee increases to keep a boat docked at the harbor, set to take effect Oct. 1.

The fee hike is an apparent side effect of the harbor’s planned modernization and renovation of its outdated facilities.

Smaller boat owners will see as much as a 26% rate increase to keep their slips, while a larger boat owner could see their rate go up by as much as 90%.

Some boaters say the decision has them looking to pull up anchor, in search of less costly slips at other harbors, perhaps outside the county. 

Many have also turned up en masse at recent county Board of Supervisors meetings, pleading with elected officials who oversee the harbor for help.

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The slip fee hike comes from the harbor’s redevelopers, a set of firms coalesced under one LLC known as the “Dana Point Harbor Partners,” who now control the harbor after signing a master lease to overhaul the area with county supervisors’ approval in 2018.

Bellwether Financial President Joseph Ueberroth, whose company is a member of the Dana Point Harbor Partners LLC and who has represented the firm in correspondence with boaters and at public meetings, didn’t respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The redevelopers are “asking boaters to pay outrageous fees for the improvement to our crumbling docks and state of our slips that … we’re not even sure will happen,” said Victoria Winters, a boater and Dana Point Boaters Association board member in a Friday interview.

“What do Dana Point Boaters get in return? Crumbling docks, dilapidated restrooms and showers, sea lions lounging on docks, Wi-Fi which doesn’t work, and a parking system which only works part of the time,” reads one July 25 newsletter from the Boaters Association to its members.

The association is not directly endorsing today’s protest, said Association President Anne Eubanks. However, she said, the group has noticed it to boaters in its latest newsletter.

Also underlying today’s planned protest is a recent letter to the County of Orange from the Boaters Association, sent on Aug. 10, raising questions about past county policy decisions that, boaters argue, seem to conflict with what’s being allowed at the harbor now.

In Dana Point Harbor Partners’ formal notice of slip rate increases to boaters, the firm argued in writing at the time that “after the Oct. 1 rate increase, all slip categories will be approximately 35% to 45% below the current Orange County average.”

The firm “based the proposed (increased slip) rates on a comparison with only other Orange County slip rates, the vast bulk of which are Newport Harbor rates,” reads the Aug. 10 letter from Dennis Winters, Victoria Winters’ spouse, acting as the Boaters Association’s legal counsel.

“As all are aware, the Newport Harbor, in the middle of one of the most affluent communities in California, has a number of relatively small marinas catering to that community’s wealthiest boat owners,” the letter adds. 

Yet, Winters argues in his letter, county officials rejected a similar such formula back in 2001 when “the then-operator of the Dana West Marina attempted to … (adjust) their rents using Newport Beach rates as a basis for establishing new rates.”

That county decision was laid out in a Feb. 2020, 2001 letter from Vicki Wilson of the county’s Public Facilities and Resources Dept., known now as OC Public Works, who called it “unusual” to determine the market rate from data “limited to marinas in Newport Harbor” and omitting “any other reasonably nearby comparable marinas.”

The old county letter from 2001 is attached to Winters’ Aug. 10 letter to County Counsel Leon Page.

The Board of Supervisors codified that rejection in a unanimous vote on June 19, 2001, according to minutes of the meeting also attached to Winters’ letter.

County spokesperson Molly Nichelson declined to comment on Winters’ letter.

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The redeveloper firm, in its initial notice to boaters announcing the slip fee hikes, acknowledged “we will receive a very negative reaction to the rate increase as no explanation or methodology no matter how thoughtful or justified will offset the sticker shock.” 

What developers said they did know, however, “is how the rate increase will actually impact turnover.”

“When we took over operations, there were long waitlists for the larger slips, but we actually had vacancies in the slip categories under 30 feet. As of today, we have waitlists for every category and they are only growing. We even have a waitlist to sublease slips, which are up to 90% more in price than the listed slip rates.”

The Dana Point Harbor Partners in their notice acknowledged that the rate increases may drive boaters out of Dana Point:

“We are hopeful that the advance notice will be helpful in that endeavor.”

Boaters Association President Anne Eubanks said her organization hasn’t gotten many answers from the County of Orange to questions over, for example, how the scheduled slip rate increases comply with the Tidelands Grant to the Dana Point Harbor area.

The Tidelands Grant “was intended to provide an alternative to that near monopoly Newport Harbor had on slip rentals in Orange County; that is, to provide a marina where the public, including all boat owners, could have a place to enjoy,” Winters wrote in his letter. 

County Chief Real Estate Officer Thomas Miller in a July 12 letter to Eubanks said the slip fee increases complied with the county’s lease agreement with the redevelopers and the Tidelands Grant, but provided no other reasoning other than that the Dana Point Harbor Partners have asserted their increases are within market rate.

“Nor did they (the county) answer our question about who has real oversight over this project, ” Eubanks said. “It appears no-one is claiming ownership of it, which is very concerning,” 

Over the 26 months that Dana Point Harbor Partners has leased control over the harbor with the county, the firm has made a total $35 million from boaters who’ve paid their slip fees as of Dec. 31, 2020, according to the firm’s latest financial report.

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