Cheyenne on thin ice with NB Harbor Commission

NEWPORT BEACH — Cheyenne is on the verge of wearing out its welcome as a deadlocked Newport Beach Harbor Commission failed to reach a consensus or mandate of whether the experimental catamaran should be allowed to remain in the bay.

Three of seven harbor commissioners wanted to give Cheyenne owner Chris Welsh another extension to determine whether he can complete his project and head out on a planned expedition. The other three commissioners said they ran out of patience. One commissioner recused himself from the vote. 

Welsh, who hopes to sail Cheyenne to the deepest points of the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans, said the catamaran would be in Monterey for testing by the first week of January 2016, then head west to begin the “Five Dives” expedition. Newport Beach, however, might not be base of the visit and expedition.

“The dome work has been longer than anticipated,” said Welsh, adding the dome would be ready within a few weeks. “We’re eager to get this going.”

At least three commissioners did not share Welsh’s optimism, as they pointed out that Welsh  told commissioners the dome was weeks away from being completed during last month’s meeting. 

Commissioner Duncan McIntosh questioned if Welsh was any closer to having Cheyenne ready for his ambitious expedition than when the advisory board granted him an extension last November.

There was also a question of whether Cheyenne actually presented any benefit or value to Newport Beach.

“To this point I’ve seen no tangential benefit to the city. I haven’t seen the progress I’ve expected,” Commissioner Paul Blank said.

Blank added Welsh should be asked to leave the harbor immediately but be allowed to re-apply for a mooring once his project is actually ready to go.

Also displeased with Welsh’s progress was Commissioner Doug West, who said the catamaran owner should have taken the initiative to tell the city how it benefits from his expedition. Earlier in the meeting, Welsh admitted he never explored how Cheyenne would be a benefit to Newport Beach but expressed an interest to meet with commissioners and City Council members to come up with a plan.

“This has gone on for so many extensions,” West said. “I think we’ve come to an end with this.”

Two commissioners — William Kenney and Joe Stapleton — were vocally supportive of Welsh’s work and believed he deserved one more extension.

Kenney believed Cheyenne has significant promotional value for Newport Beach. Meanwhile, Stapleton said he understood his colleagues’ concerns but believed Welsh was very close from realizing his ambitious plan, hence providing Newport Beach with a “huge opportunity.”

“I’d love to see this project come to fruition and Newport Beach get the credit it deserves,” Stapleton said, adding he believed Welsh was on the “5-yard line” and the city would share the credit of Welsh’s exploration.

Harbor Commissioner David Girling, who served his first meeting as commission chair, expressed guarded optimism of Cheyenne’s future. He held out hope Welsh could have the catamaran and one-man submarine ready to go within the next few months but also wanted to keep the door open for the commission to recommend the catamaran vacate Newport Harbor if commissioners were not satisfied with the expedition’s monthly progress.

“There’s no one here who wants to see this succeed more than me. We want the city to benefit,” Girling said. “It’s not on us to figure out how [Cheyenne] will benefit the city. I’d want to see that immediately. There has to be an end-game here.”

One Newport Beach resident questioned why the commission was so concerned about the publicity the city would receive if Cheyenne successfully embarked on its “Five Dives” expedition. James Cameron recently explored Mariana Trench, for example.

“Everyone knows about Cameron’s Mariana trip, but who can name the harbor it was based out of,” the resident said in a tongue-in-cheek comment.

Stapleton quickly replied the documentary film chronicling the dive into the deepest depth of the Pacific Ocean made it clear Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenger was built and based out of Sydney, Australia. Cameron built the submersible vessel in secret, however.

Interestingly enough, the split commission did not have the final say as to whether Welsh, whose permit to park Cheyenne in Newport Harbor expires July 31, can extend his stay in the city.

The ultimate arbiter is Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller. Commissioners, accordingly, were voting to make a recommendation to Miller.

Miller is now tasked whether to allow the permit to expire by July 31 or give Welsh until Jan. 7, 2016, to have his vessel complete and ready to embark on its planned expedition.

The three commissioners supporting Welsh backed a recommendation to allow Welsh to remain in the harbor for six more months and provide 30-day updates of his progress. Each update would have to be submitted by the first of each month. If a majority of commissioners were not pleased with Welsh’s progress and did not believe he would be ready by Jan. 7, 2016, they could recommend giving the Cheyenne owner a 60-day notice to vacate.

Complicating matters is the appeals process. If Welsh were not pleased with Miller’s ultimate decision, he could file an appeal with an independent arbiter. The process could take up to six weeks. Welsh would have to take his matter to Superior Court if he wanted to appeal the independent officer’s decision, possibly prolonging the matter for months or years. Interestingly enough, the City Council is not involved with any part of the process.

Blank, McIntosh and West did not support the recommendation suggested by Girling and backed by Kenney and Stapleton. Commissioner Brad Avery recused himself from the Cheyenne deliberation, stating he belongs to the same yacht club as Welsh and socializes with him.

Separately, Miller confirmed Welsh is paying the city current mooring fees.

Cheyenne is a 125-foot catamaran and is attached to a special mooring in the harbor; the largest mooring offered by the city is for a 90-foot vessel.

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