I remember growing up in a small town in New York that was surrounded by a decent-sized body of water called the Great South Bay.
We lived up the street from a creek that led out to the bay and we had, along with the other residents on the block, water rights as part of our home ownership. Looking back, it was pretty amazing — the neighbors all chipped in to maintain the ten-slip dock and I kept a little rowboat down on the grass that I would use to visit my friends across the creek.
There were no heated Small Craft Harbor Commission meetings, no faceless “county” that people arbitrarily vilified, no rate hikes, no fire access ordinances, no government inspections, no arguments about boater’s rights, no “market value” discussions, no independent studies by outside consultants. There was just a two minute walk down to the boat, where a child could be alone to daydream.
While I still daydream, the boating experience is far different and much more controversial here in Los Angeles than what I knew, but such is the climate in America’s largest manmade harbor, which is in the midst of shedding her old skin and donning a new one. With change, there will be unrest, the latest of which is happening on Fiji Way in Marina del Rey at what’s known as the mast-up storage area.
For decades sailors have had the luxury of renting parking spots at a fenced-in, secure area that allows them to keep their masts raised and tow their boats to the very nearby launch ramps for an inarguably reasonable monthly fee. A 20-foot boat could have a home for $73.25 a month and be prepped and launched in under ten minutes.
In a harbor that is rapidly seeing in-water slip fees topping the $20-a-foot threshold, the mast-up storage facility was an oasis for the price-conscious sailor, but those days are seemingly over — with “market value” as a rallying cry. The county Department of Beaches and Harbors raised the rates in mast-up to the tune of 50 percent or more, and while it just repaved the lot and upgraded the fence, renters say they still felt blindsided.
“There should have been more notice,” said longtime tenant Michael O’Kelly. “I have two boats in there and I need to sell one of them now, because I can’t afford to keep them both with the new rates, but 30 days isn’t enough time to get everything together to sell the thing.”
Like O’Kelly, many of the tenants are shocked by both the size of the increase and lack of timely notice. The department gave the tenants 30 days notice of the increase that also included a security deposit raise as well.
Some tenants have wondered out loud about the future of the facility, saying that the county’s management has been less than consistent — odd by some standards. In the past, there have been complaints of inferior customer service and second-rate upkeep, leading skeptics to suspect the area was being set up to fail so the prime property could be used for other, more lucrative means in this time of refurbishing. Now those same tenants are curious and even suspicious about the nature of this somewhat extreme rate hike.
“There’s no truth to that,” says Santos Kreimann, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, of the accusation. “I have no plans on getting rid of it. We’re not planning on getting out of the mast-up storage business.
“The fact that we invested on improving the infrastructure — why would anyone think we are getting rid of it? As a matter of fact, there’s an RFP (request for proposals) to develop that site and one of the components included in the RFP that needs to be maintained is the mast-up storage.”
As for the rate increase, Kreimann concedes that it was a considerable hike, but he maintains that the Marina del Rey facility is not out of bounds in terms of the amount of money the county receives for harboring boats.
“In terms of the rent increase, the fees we’ve been charging haven’t been raised for over 20 years,” he says. “We did a pretty extensive survey to determine what the rates should be — I think we’re within the market range.”
It’s this “market range” that doesn’t seem to satisfy a vocal contingent of boaters in this area. Some feel this term is given undo credence by virtue of its repetition. At public meetings, speakers often decry the idea that Marina del Rey has to go down this road of retaining market value in its fees.
“They are not just getting market value,” said one tenant who asked not to be named. “Market value would be to let developers build a mall or condos.
“They are not supposed to be trying to make as much money as possible,” the tenant claimed.—“They are supposed to be managing and ensuring public access.”
Few would argue that there is a clear “us versus them” relationship between Marina del Rey boaters and the steward of the harbor. Kriemann says he is working on that, stating he appreciates the public bringing issues to his attention so he can address them.
“Sometimes when you’re sitting at the director position you don’t hear everything you want to hear,” he says. “I don’t shy away from constructive criticism.”
As for O’Kelly, he will sell one of his boats and pay the added increase for the other. In a worried and somewhat resigned tone, he summed up his feelings saying:
“I just want to know that we’re not going to be aced out of there for a Starbucks and a condo. There’s a document that states a mandate for the harbor and what it’s for — and I think those guys need to read that.”