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Feeling the Big Squeeze

As marinas go upscale to accommodate super-size yachts, small boats get pushed out. Homeowners see their blue-water scenery turn to white fiberglass.

July 09, 2006|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Chris Herman's clients want luxury and space in their coastal getaways. They want expansive kitchens with granite countertops and bathrooms bathed in marble. Giant flat-screen televisions are standard, as are fine custom woodwork in the master suite and Italian-leather sofas in the salon.

Herman isn't a real estate agent hawking ocean-view mansions. He is a yacht broker on Newport Beach's Mariner's Mile, where, by one estimate, half a billion dollars' worth of floating condominiums were sold last year.

"It's just like homes today: Bigger is better," said Herman, a salesman at Bayport Yachts, where one customer recently bought and traded in three boats in just 18 months before he found what he wanted: 57 feet. "Buyers want more comfort. They want more status."

Big vessels have long plied California's coast. But in the last decade, a surge in sales of longer, wider and taller yachts has done more than satisfy the dreams of deep-pocketed people wanting to stretch their sea legs.

The trend has become a public policy issue. Homeowners complain that their views and docking space are invaded as aging marinas go upscale, reducing the number of small-boat slips to accommodate larger boats, which pay higher rents when they aren't languishing on waiting lists.

"It is a key issue in all of the projects that have come up in the past year or so," said Deborah Lee, senior deputy director of the California Coastal Commission, which must approve marina renovations and protect access to recreational boating. "There's concern about keeping smaller boaters from getting pushed out.... But larger slips are where the demand is.... We hear it from both sides."

California has a shortage of coastal slips because of environmental regulations that virtually stopped marina construction a quarter-century ago. Demand for this liquid real estate is expected only to grow as the state is projected to add as many as 23,000 boats a year through 2020.

"They can't all go in the water," said Harold Flood, planning supervisor for the state Department of Boating and Waterways.

Although big boats constitute a fraction of the market, a growing armada of posh vessels is having a profound effect on harbors designed with boats smaller than 25 feet in mind.

About 2,000 new powerboats longer than 40 feet were registered in California from 1998 to 2005, according to Info-Link, a Florida company specializing in the boating industry. Nearly half were longer than 50 feet.

"In 1960, there were probably no more than 10 boats over 60 feet in the harbor. Now there's probably a couple hundred," said Seymour Beek, 72, a sailor and member of the Newport Beach Harbor Commission. "It's a different culture."

Owners of super-yachts of 80 feet or more -- the average size of a blue whale -- have taken extraordinary steps to dock their multimillion-dollar trophy boats in Newport.

Philanthropist John Crean, who made a fortune in recreational vehicles as founder of Fleetwood Enterprises, bought a home on Lido Isle two years ago because it could handle his new 125-foot yacht, the Donna C. III.

"You've got to park it somewhere," he said.

Sales of these luxurious leviathans are booming. In the 1990s, 150 to 275 were constructed annually worldwide, according to industry spokesmen. Now there are 688 at various stages of completion in the world's shipyards and about 3,200 cruising the globe in high style.

Although there was a time when a yacht about the size of an aircraft carrier might have been seen as a tad ostentatious, we're over it, said Doug Sharp, a San Diego yacht designer and president of the Florida-based International Superyacht Society.

"Now it's OK to be wealthy and show your wealth," he said, pointing out that a custom-built 100-footer -- "that's considered quite a small yacht now" -- goes for about $5 million.

The trend has even been felt down in the mid-double-digits, where boat builders say 60 feet is the new 40 feet.

"It's been kind of like 'super-size me' for the entire industry," said John Freeman, a spokesman for Knight & Carver YachtCenter, a San Diego shipyard.

Super-yachts are more numerous in Florida than California, but smaller large boats chugging into port are enough to shiver the timbers of many a harbor official here.

In Newport Beach, officials regularly receive complaints from homeowners whose blue harbor vistas have been replaced by walls of white fiberglass.

The city has acted when a boat extends as little as an inch onto a neighbor's berth. "If it's not encroaching by that inch, then it's just a matter of them not liking that boat next door," said Chris Miller, Newport Beach's harbor resources supervisor. "There's nothing I can do."

There was little the city could do when, in 2001, a 50-foot-plus yacht owned by former Arco Chairman Lodwrick Cook landed on Balboa Island to protests from homeowners who complained that the Carole Diane blocked views, limited public beach access, was unsafe for swimmers and harmed sensitive eel grass.

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