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Newport Beach dock renters may withhold holiday love

Some waterfront homeowners angry over higher rental fees threaten to not participate in the city's yearly Christmas Boat Parade.

December 18, 2012|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times
  • Vessels cruise through Newport Harbor during last year's Christmas boat parade.
Vessels cruise through Newport Harbor during last year's Christmas… (Los Angeles Times )

Marcy Cook embraces the holiday season. The tell? Start with the teddy bears dressed as Santa. More than 1,500 stand sentry around and inside her Newport Beach waterfronthome. Garland and strings of lights threaten to strangle the place like kudzu.

"We decorate a little bit, if you haven't noticed," said Cook, 69. "It's the highlight of the year for us."

Each Christmas, Newport Harbor is ablaze in lights as homeowners go to extraordinary lengths to complement the city's annual Christmas Boat Parade — an indelible tradition that renews itself Wednesday night and continues through Sunday.

But this has been a stressful season here along the tranquil waterfront lined with multimillion-dollar homes.

An increase in city rental fees for residential docks that protrude over public tidelands created a furor when it was approved last week by the City Council.

It also prompted a call to boycott the boat parade and festival of lights by a group calling itself "Stop the Dock Tax."

"It costs us thousands of dollars to voluntarily decorate our homes and boats to bring holiday smiles to nearly 1 million people," organization Chairman Bob McCaffrey wrote to the city. "This year, we are turning off our lights and withdrawing our boats in protest of the massive new dock tax we expect the City Council to levy."

Pete Pallette, a fellow boycott proponent and harbor homeowner, told city leaders the group would call off the boycott only if the council delayed voting on the rent hike. "Otherwise," he vowed, "game on."

In a place where homes come with names and mega-yachts bob in the harbor, it might appear the wealthy are wielding a weapon most often reserved for the masses. A holiday blackout, proponents say, will underscore their displeasure.

Newport's dock fee, which has stood at $100 a year for the last two decades, will now be based on a dock's size. The city says rents will increase to about $250 for a small slip to $3,200 annually for a large dock shared by two homeowners.

"People have been paying $8 a month all these years to access what is public waters," said Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff. "That's a pretty good deal. The City Council didn't think the increase it approved was too extreme."

Many did.

They packed council meetings when the hike was discussed, accusing the city of an excessive money grab.

They brushed aside the city's rationale: Statelawmandates cities charge fair market rents for the private use of public lands, and Newport Beach was only now catching up.

And they were unmoved by arguments that the extra revenue will go exclusively to badly needed repairs to a harbor that, despite outward appearances, needs a lot of work.

The city's five-year plan for the harbor calls for $29 million in long-overdue maintenance. Its silt-filled channels haven't been fully dredged since the Great Depression. Ancient, leaky sea walls protecting neighborhoods need to be repaired or replaced.

"We have the makings of a perfect storm like they did on the East Coast" during Superstorm Sandy, said Chris Miller, the city's harbor resources manager. "The sea walls are nearing the end of their useful life."

Even with the rent increases, Newport's dock owners will contribute a tiny fraction of that cost — the rest coming from the federal government and the city's general operating fund.

As dock owners fumed over having to pay more, others recoiled at the proposed boycott of the boat parade, which dates to 1908 when a single gondola led eight canoes illuminated by Japanese lanterns around the harbor. It has now swelled to a decent-sized armada of dozens of boats — some carrying paying customers — that circle past the decorated harbor-front homes.

"The boycott is ridiculous," said Shirley Pepys, whose frontyard on Balboa Island has been taken over by a family of penguins dressed for a Hawaiian luau.

"Taking the fun away for a million people? The majority of people here will still have their lights on," she said. "Only a handful won't."

A stroll around the island last week indicates Pepys may be right.

Restraint and Christmas are words that don't go together here. A mob of steroidal Santas and snowmen stand sentry in frontyards. There are enough lights to have cleaned out a couple dozen Home Depots.

Some homes are decked out with holiday dioramas befitting a high-end retailer.

When Jim and Peggy Rich remodeled their two-storyhome, they installed a frame to support a carousel of reindeer on the roof. In their yard, a giant Santa rides in a hot air balloon.

A snowman stands at their front gate like a bouncer.

"He'sreal," Jim said, slapping his hand on its belly. It was created and is kept solid by a humming refrigeration unit.

Theirs is an expensive hobby: it costs $15,000 to hire a crew to put the stuff up. Until they switched to LED lights, the electric bill ran $1,100 a month; now it's $400.

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