NEWPORT BEACH – Thrill seekers hoping to strap a jet engine onto their back and fly above the waters of Newport Harbor suffered a setback on Oct. 13 when the Newport Beach Harbor Commission unanimously supported an ad hoc committee’s recommendation to prohibit jetpacks in the bay.
The commission’s recommendation was made after a Water Propelled Vessel Ad Hoc Committee studied the use of jetpacks in Newport Harbor. The committee was chaired by Harbor Commissioner Bill Kenney along with Harbor Commissioner Duncan McIntosh.
At the Oct. 13 meeting, Kenney presented the committee’s findings and suggested the Harbor Commissioners recommend the City Council adopt a policy prohibiting “commercial and private operation of vessels propelled by water above the surface of Newport Harbor.”
“We’re a residential harbor. We always have to work toward balancing uses,” Harbor Commission Chairman Brad Avery said, who pointed out that unlike similar facilities in Long Beach or San Diego, Newport Harbor is home to 1,100 residences.
Two of the three speakers who addressed the commission supported the ad hoc committee’s suggestion to prohibit jetpacks in Newport Harbor.
“In our harbor, it’s just not a good fit,” said Billy Whitford of the Newport Aquatic Center.
Specifically, Whitford said he did not want to make a dreaded phone call to parents if a teenage member of the aquatic center was injured in an incident involving a jetpack user.
Speaking more broadly, Judy Cole urged the commission to accept the ad hoc committee recommendation in order to avoid a slippery slope in the future.
“This isn’t just about one business. It’s about the entire harbor,” Cole said.
Dean O’Malley, president of JetPack America, the only jetpack operator permitted in Newport Harbor, said the safety concerns were neither warranted nor based upon any evidence.
“Our safety record is impeccable. You compare our safety record to any other business out there we’re just as safe or safer. I think the perception of safety is the issue, not the actual safety,” O’Malley told The Log.
Interestingly enough, before Kenney revealed the ad hoc committee’s recommendation, he noted JetPack America was a member of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce and had an “excellent safety record.”
Still, noise and safety were cited as chief concerns. One question brought up was whether the high number of kayakers who use Newport Harbor would increase the risk of accidents occurring with jetpack users.
Other concerns included location of the jetpack operation, hours, pollution, commercial versus private use and the potential for a large wake.
The ad hoc committee added jetpacks could not be limited to a specifically designated area, require a lot of space to function and need to move around the harbor to mitigate noise.
O’Malley said he was “disappointed” by the ad hoc committee’s recommendation and Harbor Commission vote.
During the meeting, O’Malley told commissioners he is doing all he could to be a model corporate citizen.
“We are flexible. We understand we are a new user to the harbor, but we’re trying to be responsible to our neighbors,” O’Malley said. “This is a unique draw. We bring people into the city.”
Kenney commended O’Malley and Jetpack America for being “very cooperative,” but said the issue came down to safety and a limited amount of space to mitigate concerns.
Since the Harbor Commission’s vote is not final but instead a suggestion to the Newport Beach City Council, O’Malley and other jetpack operators still have a chance to have a presence in Newport Harbor.
O’Malley said while he would spend the next few weeks lobbying City Council to not vote in favor of the Harbor Commission’s recommendation, he is also preparing to move his business elsewhere.
“We’ve been working hard since day one to cooperate, participate in the conversation and find a reasonable setup that works not only for us but our guests and for the residents and city. They didn’t give us enough of a chance to show what we could do,” O’Malley said. “It would be unfortunate if we did get pushed out into the ocean. If that happens, we’ll most likely take our business elsewhere.”
The ad hoc committee recommendation would not impact the current permit allowing JetPack America to operate within Newport Harbor through May 2015. Instead, the recommendation, which only goes into effect if the City Council votes in favor of it, would ban future uses of jetpacks within Newport Harbor.
Suited in a shoulder harness, a jetpack user can be propelled off the water’s surface and, courtesy of a water-pumping hose, into the sky. The user can steer the device.
JetPack America is the only group permitted to offer these hovercraft devices. Its customers are only allowed to use jetpacks in non-federal channels.
McIntosh was not present at the Oct. 13 Harbor Commission meeting. Commissioner Joe Stapleton recused himself from the jetpack agenda item.
The United States Coast Guard had three representatives attend the meeting and stated the agency is still fact-finding and performing due diligence. Accordingly, the Coast Guard has not yet developed a policy on jetpacks.
With the Harbor Commission’s recommendation, the City Council could weigh in on jetpack regulation at one of its two November meetings.