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Newport Harbor Speed Limit Exemption Gets Council Nod

posted: 10/4/2011
NEWPORT BEACH -- Sailboat and crew boat racers should soon be allowed to enjoy their competition without having to worry about receiving a speeding ticket, as plans for an exemption to Newport Harbor’s 5-mph speed limit appear to be moving forward.

The plan, which has been approved conceptually by the Newport Beach Harbor Commission, was presented to Newport Beach City Council members at a Sept. 14 study session. Harbor Resources manager Chris Miller explained how a permitting process for planned regattas and practice sessions would allow boaters to enjoy their races without forcing Harbor Patrol officers to look the other way at speed limit violations. 

“We have a long tradition of racing in the harbor -- and occasionally, some of the boats exceed 5 miles per hour,” explained Councilwoman Nancy Gardner. “The Harbor Patrol is supposed to enforce the law, and it put them in an awkward position.” 

With the proposed plan, race organizers will now need to apply for a permit from the city to get exemption from the harbor speed limit. Miller said that city staff members are working on creating an online application form that can be submitted with minimal paperwork or difficulty. 

“The idea of giving a speeding ticket to somebody in a sailboat race is one of those things that makes people scratch their heads and wonder what the government’s doing,” said Councilman Keith Curry. “It’s surprising to me that, in our 105-year history, it took us this long to get around to fixing that problem.” 

Orange County Sheriff’s Harbormaster Tom Slayton said the Harbor Patrol fully supported the ordinance, but wanted a clause added to the basic speed law stating “you can never go faster than what is safe.” 

While the current Harbor Patrol staff has not been writing citations for sailing vessels speeding in the harbor, incidents in years past were brought up where officers were said to have shut down races when they believed racers were speeding or boating recklessly in the harbor. 

“We’ve had great relations with the Harbor Patrol for the last few years -- but before that, it was slightly more strained,” said Newport Beach resident Andy Rose, a regular Thursday night participant in the harbor’s Beer Can races. Rose believes that by adding the new language to the basic speed limit rules, future Harbor Patrol administrations might interpret racing differently, and find boats going over the speed limit in close proximity to each other -- inherent in racing -- as triggering a violation. 

“I’m just worried about enforcement,” Rose said. “This is a very objective ordinance, but as soon as you put in something subjective, then it’s going to be relying on the people that enforce it.” 

Gardner also raised the issue of whether it was necessary for the city to require race organizers to include $1 million worth of insurance coverage during their races. 

“For a yacht club, that’s going to be fine, but when we have an outrigger group, are they going to be required to come up with a $1 million policy as well?” Gardner asked. 

Miller answered that the current races, many of which have been in place for decades, already have the insurance, and estimated the cost at $350 to $500 per year for the needed coverage. 

The city estimates that seven or eight races that take place in the harbor would require a permit for the speed limit exemption. Powerboats that act as support boats to sail and human-powered craft during races will also be exempt from the speed limit, so they can keep up with the racers. 

Sailboats and human-powered vessels scheduled to compete in the permitted races will also be allowed to exceed speed limits during practice sessions. 

The next step in the process to get the plan approved will be for city officials to file a copy of the speed limit exemption permit plan with the California Department of Boating and Waterways. Miller said Cal Boating would most likely not have any issue with the exemption, and expects the final draft of the ordinance to be presented to council members in October or November. 

“We hope to have it in place and functional with an application process all in time for next summer’s 2012 racing season.” 

Also discussed during the study session was a change of the city code to match the county code and change from a 5-knot speed limit in the harbor to a 5-mph speed limit.

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