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Can My Marina Require Me to Pay for Pumpout Services I Don’t Use?

I have lived on my 50-foot sailboat in a Northern California marina for many years. During that time, I have been charged for a holding tank pumpout service every month, even though I have never used the service during the entire time I was a marina tenant. I recently talked to the marina manager, and he advised that I am required to pay for the service even if I never use it. Furthermore, my slip rent has been raised continually — sometimes twice a year. I had understood that there are laws that prohibit raising rent more than once a year. If so, can I pursue legal action against the marina for violating that law? I am also interested in pursuing a legal claim to recover my payments for the pumpout service that I’ve never used. Can you help?
In a word, no.

It’s impossible to answer a question like this with certainty, since we have not seen our reader’s slip rental agreement. But based on what he has shared with us, he has no claim against his marina.

Our reader, with his reference to controls over annual rent increases, appears to be considering the various rent control ordinances that have been enacted by cities around the state. These local laws, however, refer only to a residential tenancy, such as an apartment.

As we have noted many times in this column, a marina slip rental agreement is essentially an agreement to rent a parking space. Liveaboard boaters are not renting a residence, since they are not renting the boat in which they are living. Instead, they usually own the boat and are renting a patch of water and a dock.

California does have a “Floating Home Residency Law,” which provides some controls over a marina operator’s actions toward its tenants. That law, however, applies only to vessels that have permanent water and sewer pipes and utility connections, rather than hoses and shore power cords. And it applies only to marinas where more than 10 percent of the slips are occupied by those types of vessels. Our reader’s 50-foot sailboat will not fall under the residency law.

With that discussion in mind, there is no law in California that controls the number of times that a marina can raise a tenant’s slip rent. Most marina slip rental agreements are structured as month-to-month rental agreements. In a month-to-month lease, either party may request a modification to any term of the lease — including the rent amount — on 30 days’ notice. The other party may respond by agreeing to the modification, or by negotiating a different number, or by terminating the agreement. In the case of a marina tenancy, terminating the agreement translates to moving out of the marina.

Similarly, if a mandatory charge for a pumpout service is a part of a slip rental agreement, and the charge is to be assessed every month regardless of whether the boat owner uses the service, then the charge will, in fact, be assessed every month. We have not seen a provision like this set forth in writing in a slip rental agreement, but there is no law that would prohibit it.

Under the circumstances described by our reader, the pumpout charge would probably be enforceable — even if it was not set forth in writing in the slip rental agreement. Our reader was advised that he would be charged for the service regardless of whether he used it and, after being advised, he remained in the marina and paid the charge.

A person may be deemed to agree to a contractual provision by his or her actions, even if he or she never signs anything. In this case, the fact that he was advised of the charge and chose to remain in the marina may be sufficient to bind him to that provision.

An analysis of a person’s rights and obligations under any contract cannot be conclusive without a review of the written documents. We may, however, apply one element of this discussion to anyone who is facing a possible dispute with a marina. A boat represents a significant investment of time, money and, in many cases, emotion — and a boat owner’s relationship with his or her marina may be a significant aspect of boat ownership. But at the end of the day, we are talking about the rental of a parking space.

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