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Newport Crackdown Gives Berth to a Problem

Enforcement of fire rules means many boat owners who had shared space with others must look elsewhere for a place to tie up.

October 13, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The hunt for boat slips in chronically congested Newport Harbor will grow even more critical in coming weeks as the city prepares to enforce fire laws that prohibit boats from being tied up alongside each other in overcrowded berths.

The city's municipal code prohibits the practice, in part because flames can spread among linked boats and the tied vessels could hamper firefighting efforts.

The law has not been enforced, officials acknowledge, but the issue will be discussed Tuesday at a City Council study session because local officials are considering adopting statewide fire codes that make the same prohibition.

Boat brokers, yacht clubs and other commercial boat operators say that when the city begins enforcing the law, demand will cause rent for the expensive slips to skyrocket. Some now cost $34 per foot per month; larger berths are already booked for as long as three years.

For J.R. Means, co-owner of Bayport Yachts, enforcement means he will need to find slips for half of the 12 yachts he has for sale. The vessels, ranging from 40 to 55 feet, now occupy two large slips.

"I'm going to have to go out and compete on the open market with other boats to find six more slips, and in a full harbor like Newport Beach, that's going to affect the rates everyone pays, not just me," said Means.

When the city adopts the Uniform Fire Code and begins enforcing its municipal code, the search for slips will likely focus on private residences.

However, renting private slips is a short-term solution. After the city enforces the code among commercial firms, officials say they will address the same problem with private slips, where packing boats is also widespread.

Owners of more than one boat commonly tie them to one another within single slips, and slip owners frequently sub-let to other boat owners, who then jockey for position as slip tenants come and go.

Assistant City Manager Dave Kiff said the Fire Department has focused on land and building safety and has devoted little attention to the harbor.

"It's hard to go around through the property to look at docks and see violations," Kiff said. "They've known this is a problem and have gently told the city, 'We need to address this.' "

The city's Harbor Commission, created about a year ago, announced that fire safety within the harbor and code enforcement would be a priority, Kiff said.

A survey of 63 businesses in the harbor last year found that more than half were in violation. Forcing compliance will be "disruptive" said Tim Collins, chairman of the commission.

"Our economy locally is no different than the national economy, and you're adding something on to companies that are trying to manage through a soft economy," he said.

Removing boats that violate the code is the easy part, he said, "But where do you put them?"

He said the commission and other city departments will try to help businesses by reconfiguring offshore moorings to allow more boats, and by reworking the marinas. But business owners are skeptical.

"There is no way to reconfigure these marinas," to accommodate the boats that will have to be moved, Means said.

"There's going to be a mile or two of boats that won't have a home," said Randy Goodman, owner of Electra Cruises in Lido Marina Village.

He owns five large charter boats that block smaller ones that rent dock space from him. If those boats have to move, "It's going to cost me about $6,000 a month in lost revenue," he said.

Fire Chief Tim Riley says fire codes affecting boats have gone unenforced in part because previous city councils lacked the political will. "The biggest constituent group is the residential homeowner. Why? Because they're voters," he said.

Kiff acknowledged that enforcing the code will affect boat owners by driving up slip prices, but "we have a potentially unsafe situation out there and we have to remedy it as quickly as possible."

If the City Council adopts the Uniform Fire Code, which regulates everything from fire hydrants to explosion hazards, harbor business owners will have six months to comply.

The city still has not determined what penalties will be for noncompliance.

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