Dana Point Harbor boater George Hughes is no lawyer. 

“Who knows? Maybe I will be, by the end of all this,” he said during a March 7 interview at the harbor as he pointed to docks in disrepair, tilting and even sinking into the channel – docks which Hughes and other boaters began paying sharply higher rental rates for since last October.

Boaters like Hughes are being told the higher fees will pay for construction work that’s yet to commence by Joe Ueberroth and his redevelopment firm, the Dana Point Harbor Partners, hired by County of Orange officials in 2018 to give the 50-year-old harbor its long-awaited facelift.

Those angry with the price hikes say they’ve seen zilch in terms of harbor improvements, three years after OC Supervisors – namely the board’s harbor representative, Lisa Bartlett – chose Ueberroth’s team to take on the $400 million effort.

But work crews will soon arrive, the redevelopment team has vowed, after a prior construction timeline Ueberroth provided last year came and went. Until then, the docks remain in poor condition, with plywood laid over the worst of them.

The harbor does indeed host yacht clubs but also people who don’t exactly fit in with the uber-wealthy – a retired couple who downsized their homes once the kids moved out, or even those who live aboard their vessel. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Except boaters are now paying more to stay – excessive amounts, as much as a 95% increase in some cases, says the local boaters’ association.

And once the new docks are laid, some question who will still be around to appreciate the “revitalized” harbor which the local maritime community has long enjoyed as a bastion of “affordable recreational boating.” 

Namely, boaters who have since sued the county and taken up signs in protest this month said they now wonder whether this is one of the first worrying coughs of Orange County’s only public-access marinas disappearing, becoming geared toward those with more money.

Driving much of that concern, some boaters said, is the way Ueberroth’s team has justified the rent increases thus far.

And while Bartlett stood firm behind Ueberroth and his team when the redevelopment issue came back to the Board of Supervisors this month, one other supervisor started asking public questions.

“If we keep increasing the price so much, we’re pushing out regular people,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley at the board’s last meeting on March 8.

“We’re pushing out the teacher that has a boat and likes to save their money to have the boat at the harbor, near where they live,” Foley said, questioning whether the county is “pushing” less affluent boaters “to other areas less expensive and preferring people who are higher income.”

The harbor does indeed host yacht clubs, but also retirees who downsized the house for maritime living once the kids moved out, or even those who live aboard their vessels as a cheaper means to coastal real estate. 

Retirees “who never planned for such rate increases,” Hughes told Voice of OC at the docks on March 7.

Boaters protesting their new landlord, the Dana Point Harbor Partners, greeted families strolling into the Ocean Institute kicking off the city’s world-famous Festival of Whales. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Ueberroth’s team and county officials argued this month that boaters have seen the slip rental hikes coming, a stipulation in the agreement between the county and the Dana Point Harbor Partners. 

“This is part of the lease, the rate increase, and was anticipated to help finance the project. The main contributor is the marina and the slip fees to the financing,” said a County of Orange representative overseeing the project, James Campbell, at supervisors’ March 8 meeting. 

Project proponents also rejected the idea that they’re trying to push the less affluent out of the harbor in general, pointing to the fact that one prong of the redevelopment plan includes the construction of not only a luxury hotel but also a low-cost, affordable one.

“Part of the work we’re doing with the hotels is to have an affordable hotel,” Bartlett said at the March 8 meeting, responding to Foley’s questions, adding “we’re certainly addressing” the affordable harbor access component “through Dana Point Harbor Partners.”

The redevelopment team has also promised to incorporate “environmental justice” initiatives into its plan, which include educational, sailing, and water sports programs at the harbor for underserved children in the county – partnering with organizations like OC Youth Sailing and the YMCA.

The project’s main proponents now say they expect to break ground later this year, after supervisors on March 8 agreed to remove some legal binds from the language of the 2018 contract which they blamed for holding the construction work back.

The first boats arrived at Dana Point Harbor roughly 50 years ago. Upgrades are in order for the marinas.

At the meeting, supervisors amended the redevelopment agreement to allow Ueberroth’s team to start work on the commercial core and marina elements of the plan without having to wait for state regulators’ still-pending decision on the final leg: The hotels. 

Previously, all three elements of the plan needed their respective regulatory approvals to clear before shovels could start tossing dirt. 

County staff during the meeting said this has been the cause of the delays, as the California Coastal Commission has yet to sign off on the hotel component.

Requests for comment from Ueberroth yielded this March 9 emailed statement to Voice of OC from a Dana Point Harbor Partners representative, who asked not to be named:

“Dana Point Harbor Partners are pleased with the progress made in the revitalization thus far. We know the community is excited to learn more about the work that we have been finalizing behind the scenes, and a groundbreaking date will be announced shortly.” 

Burnham Ward Properties, Bellwether Financial Group, and Bellingham Marine – the companies which make up the Dana Point Harbor Partners firm – “will commence construction on their respective components of the Harbor this year,” said the spokesperson’s email. 

Burnham Ward Properties is responsible for the redevelopment project’s commercial core, which are the restaurants and retail shops along the harbor’s main drag. 

Bellwether and Bellingham Marine are responsible for construction work on the docks.

Of the three firms which make up the Dana Point Harbor Partners, Bellwether Financial Group and Bellingham Marine are responsible for the redevelopment of the marinas.

At the meeting, Bartlett and county staff denied any notion the contractor had fallen out of favor with most boaters.

“And relative to any concept about boaters leaving the harbor area en masse, that is really not the case,” Bartlett said.

The following morning, on March 9, a lengthy email appeared in the inboxes of those subscribed to regular info blasts from the Dana Point Boaters Association.

In it, the association picked at each of Bartlett’s claims from the dais during the March 8 meeting about the redevelopment effort. 

Starting with her remark about the loss of boaters.

“We ask you, Supervisor Bartlett, have you walked the docks over the last six months? Have you? Would you like us to take you on a tour of the Dana Point Marina?” reads the newsletter.

The boaters association estimates that, in fact, “approximately 250 to 300 boaters have left the marina. Many of them have sold their boats and others have moved to marinas in Long Beach or San Diego. All you have to do is count the stickers on the dock boxes which say, ‘No Parking Private Property.’”

“By the way, when did Dana Point Marina become private property?” the group’s email said.

Much of the anger surrounds the way the redevelopment team has justified its rent increases.

Some boaters protesting at the Ocean Institute say they’re fighting back against what they view as an effort to turn Orange County’s public access harbor into an enclave for the rich, like the private harbor in Newport Beach. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Bartlett, at the meeting, echoed what Ueberroth’s team has been saying since the fee hikes on boaters were announced last year – that the increased rates are still below what they consider to be the market rate. 

That’s based on a survey Ueberroth’s team conducted last year, a survey that initially left out harbors outside Orange County and only included fees in the exclusive and more expensive marinas in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. 

Eventually, Ueberroth’s team did a follow-up survey that indeed included harbors outside Orange County, though the Dana Point Boaters Association in its March 9 newsletter continued to criticize a “slap-dap” survey they said left out marinas in Redondo Beach, Ventura, and Santa Barbara.

“Six months of exorbitant rates, exorbitant rate increases, with absolutely nothing being done n terms of remodels or building anything in the harbor,” said Wayne Addison, one boater at the harbor who lives aboard his boat, in public comments on March 8. “I just think it’s unconscionable we’ve allowed this to go as far as it has, (impacting) what was an ideal harbor for the people of OC.”

Some local boaters are spreading their message however they can. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

A few days earlier, he and others gathered outside the Ocean Institute on March 4 along the edge of the harbor, where a handful of protesters spread awareness of their grievances to families strolling in for that night’s kickoff to Dana Point’s popular Festival of Whales. 

A few feet away, a van tied to balloons implored the public to “save” the harbor on a decal plastered to its side.

The rumblings of unhappy boaters have even made their way into the monthly newsletters on dock repairs and marina maintenance from the west marina’s general manager, Kelly Rinderknecht. 

“I’ve heard the rumors going around that ‘the marina wants all the boats gone.’ This is simply not true,” reads the February newsletter to boaters. “What the marina wants is and expected is for tenants to comply with the terms outlined in the Slip License Agreement one of which states that the vessel must be maintained in a seaworthy manner.”

“Speaking of rumors…we are always willing to talk through any hearsay and/or offer clarification to any rumors circulating,” it adds. 

“Always best to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

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

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