Byline: Taylor Hill
NEWPORT BEACH — The Newport Beach Tidelands Management Committee is finalizing its long-awaited “to-do list” for Newport Harbor, detailing more than $100 million in proposed new projects and maintenance in a five-year plan.
Dubbed the Tidelands Infrastructure Capital Plan (TICP), the committee — made up of city officials, a panel of citizen stakeholders and three city council members — will be reviewing the final proposal at a Sept. 19 meeting. Once finalized, the list will be sent to the Newport Beach City Council for approval.
While the harbor improvement plan has been in the works for the past two years — starting as a comprehensive “wish list” for the harbor — the most recent incarnation has whittled down many projects, but still includes an estimated $68 million seawall replacement project for Balboa Island, public dock upgrades, new construction projects, future dredging and more.
The high price designated for the seawall repair project has boaters and other Newport Beach residents concerned that the cost will eventually be passed down to them, and that the project will be used to justify the city’s current push to raise commercial marina dock fees and private dock owner fees.
During the Tidelands Management Committee’s Aug. 15 meeting, members from the recently formed Coalition to Preserve Newport Harbor voiced their concerns regarding putting such a high price tag on the seawall.
“I would have a direct benefit to the seawall being built, since I have businesses on the island,” said Balboa Ferry owner Seymour Beek. “But I have a feeling I’m being overprotected.”
The concerns from the city regarding the need to replace the 1930s-era seawall come from studies showing rising sea levels that could inundate the island, in time.
Currently, Balboa Island’s seawall measures between 7.5 and 9.5 feet above sea level in some spots, and current high tides can breach the wall, flooding portions of the island.
The Newport Beach City Council had plans to allocate $1.3 million to a study that would determine the scope of the seawall project, but the item was removed from the August agenda following public concern about spending money on a project that had not been reviewed by the public.
“When a number like $68 million is thrown out, it becomes an item for public discussion,” said John Vallely, a commercial marina owner in Newport Harbor. “Why not have some public meetings before you come out with a price that frightens local citizens?”
While City Councilman Mike Henn said there would be plenty of opportunity for public discussion on the seawall and the other items on the harbor’s capital improvement plan, City Manager Dave Kiff explained that studies are needed to get educated answers on the harbor’s needs and a project’s feasibility.
“We really can’t start a discussion on an issue until we get qualified people to speak on that issue,” Kiff said. The $68 million plan would raise the seawall to 10 feet around the entirety of the island, keeping Balboa Island dry through 2050 sea level rise projections.
The expense of the project has Beek requesting an alternative plan that would bring the entire wall around the island 10 inches higher — matching the current highest point of the wall.
“Raising it 10 inches is easy, but the numbers you have are staggering,” Beek said. He pointed out that the length of Balboa Island’s seawall is about 2.5 miles, breaking down the seawall repair cost to $5,000 per square foot.
Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner, a Tidelands Committee member, said the most important issue right now is not the eventual price tag that is attached to the seawall, but that studies are needed immediately to see what needs to be done to protect the area, and when.
“This is a very complicated issue, and deserves careful study and a lot of public input,” Henn said. “Nobody is jumping into anything.”
The $100 million TICP is coming to the table in conjunction with the city’s plan to raise fees around the harbor, currently targeting commercial dock owners.
The Harbor Charges Committee — which includes city council members Henn, Ed Selich and Steve Rosansky, along with Kiff — has been tasked with developing a comprehensive fee restructuring in the harbor. Mooring owner fees were increased in 2010, fees for commercial marinas are currently being addressed, and residential dock owner fees are to be reviewed next.
According to the city, the charges for commercial marina leases in the harbor have gone up about 24 percent since 2001, while some boaters’ marina slip rates have increased between 67 and 152 percent during that same period.
City officials say the increase in fees is state-mandated, as tidelands in Newport Harbor are owned by the state, but are administered by the city. Without fee “fair market rate” fee increases for the use of public land, the city could be guilty of administering “a Gift of Public Funds” prohibited by the California Constitution.
Fees must meet fair market value — and for the commercial marinas, the city is looking at appraisals completed in 2006 from Netzer & Associates Appraisals firm and an updated assessment from the same group in conjunction with Rasmuson Appraisal Services completed this August.
The appraisals recommend a commercial marina fee coming in at 20 percent of the marina’s gross income — restructuring the current square-footage fee plan to a percent-of-revenue-based plan and increasing commercial marina lease fees by up to nine times their current rate.
The city contends the 20-percent-of-gross-income charge represents fair market value for the commercial marinas, citing the current county lease at the Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol docks. It also states the percentage-based plan would allow for long-term leases to be awarded, instead of the current year-to-year leases.
When the new fees are in place, the city expects the Tidelands Fund, which regularly has an annual deficit of between $10 million and $15 million, to be closer to operating with a balanced budget.
Residents and commercial marina owners have formed two political action committees in opposition to the fee structure change and have asked for an independent audit of the Tidelands Fund to be conducted, to determine if money allocated for the harbor and beaches is being spent properly.
Kiff rejected the group’s request, explaining via email that an annual audit had already been done and saying it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money to spend half of the total cost of $25,000 on a forensic audit.
“We do not see why the Tidelands Fund, allowed by state grant, should be less than transparent,” Vallely said. “That way, the taxpayers can know what they are paying for.”