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Avalon wants to cut repair barge down to size

The three-story vessel near the landmark Casino was voted off the island. But the city needs what it offers, so a compromise is floated.

April 04, 2007|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

In the tale of the three-story repair barge that divided the island city of Avalon, there may be a happy ending after all.

A little more than a year after Sherrill's Marine Services was exiled from Santa Catalina Island, the barge is returning -- one story shorter, its owner $2 million richer.

If all goes as tentatively agreed by the Avalon City Council and Robert Sherrill, the boxy floating repair shop will be back by Memorial Day, minus the third floor, which triggered an uproar among the town's 3,500 residents and legions of boaters.

"I think the main thing," said Wayne Griffin, president and chief executive of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce, "is that almost everyone in town saw the need for a major repair barge."

Indeed, island economics demanded its comeback.

Catalina survives "100%" on tourists, almost all of whom arrive by sea, Griffin said. Most of the 1 million annual visitors are ferried by Catalina Express boats and cruise ships, he said, but 120,000 arrive in private boats. A handful of mechanics can be found on the island, but they are seasonal and small-scale and admit they generally can't handle big diesel engines on yachts, nor do they stock the range of marine parts that Sherrill did.

The island endured one summer without a major repair rig on the water, "but we could not survive another tourist season without one," said Marlin Club bar owner Dan O'Connor, who is also a City Council member.

O'Connor has abstained from voting on barge matters because he has a smaller boat repair business of his own, but he said Sherrill often supplied him with parts and he favors the return of Sherrill's barge.

"The boaters want it, and the boaters asked for it," Avalon Harbor Master Brian Bray said, "and the boaters are our lifeblood."

Although Sherrill still has not signed the deal the Avalon City Council approved 4 to 0 on March 20, his lawyer and the city attorney are tweaking the agreement; both sides expect it to be finalized any day now.

To understand the city's reversal requires knowing some background on the events that roiled the waterfront town, where cottages are so close together that neighbors hear each other's alarm clocks.

The teal Avalon waters were placid until the sun rose one morning in August 2005 and islanders noticed that the repair barge, formerly 23 feet high, had grown 7 feet taller. What had been a grimy gray barge had transformed into what looked more like a floating condominium, critics said.

Sherrill's barge had been moored in Avalon Bay for decades, not moving from its spot off the historic Art Deco Casino. By 2005 it was the only marine repair facility on the water.

In early 2005, Sherrill had dry-docked the barge -- 60 feet long and 22 feet wide -- to build a third-floor living area for his wife, two teenagers and their pets. They'd moved off the island for more space a few years earlier and returned to find themselves priced out of the housing market, Sherrill said.

Sherrill showed a drawing of how the new barge would look to Bray, who has authority over the harbor. Bray said he never asked how tall the barge would be -- his job is assuring that the harbor remains navigable. The city wrote Sherrill to inform him the barge could not grow in overall size, but Sherrill said he figured "a few feet" would go unnoticed.

But even as the city watched the barge grow taller in dry-dock, it could not force Sherrill to shorten the boat while it was on land, Avalon City Manager Tom Sullivan said. Nor could the harbor master. Also the city has authority over building on land, and the harbor master inspects vessels on the water, but there was no precedent for handling a hybrid of both.

As time passed, Sherrill said, he had to relaunch the barge early one morning or wait months for the same tides that allowed it to be safely guided back to its mooring. Having spent $700,000 and six months of construction to get 1,600 square feet of living space on two floors, Sherrill said he could go no longer without the repair business income, and he doubted the city could legally make him lower the roof.

Critics of the enlarged barge accused him, in the words of a City Council staff report, of sneaking the vessel back into the harbor "under cover of darkness."

Sherrill, whose father started the business decades ago, said he thought islanders would embrace the new look: arched windows, a balcony and a lighter color he felt made it blend in better with the nearby Casino.

Instead, then-Mayor Ralph Murrow claimed that residents and tourists stopped him on the waterfront that morning in August 2005, demanding to know why the barge had grown so tall that it could detract from its Art Deco neighbor, a landmark that stars in so many island postcards.

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