Marina del Rey, a haven for recreational boat owners since the 1960s, has blossomed into a tony coastal enclave of entertainment, dining and residential high-rises. In recent years, an effort to renovate and restore the Marina’s amenities and attract a well-heeled clientele has left many rejoicing about the area’s new facelift and others concerned that they are being cast aside in the name of progress.

Against this backdrop, an increase in boat slip fees for tenants has become the rallying point for residents and tenants who believe that Los Angeles County officials are seeking to force them away from enjoying this longtime public resource.

Jon Nahhas, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who docks his boat at Mariners Bay, began researching how the various county lessees — hotels, anchorages and building owners that have their properties on county land in the Marina — charge for boat slip rentals, after receiving what he and others believe are unfair and exorbitant rental hikes in recent months.

“Some of the boat owners that I have talked to have seen their rates go up 50 to 70 percent,” Nahhas said in a recent interview. “At Mariners Bay, it has been very indiscriminate, and people are worried that soon they won’t be able to keep their boats here,” he alleges.

He found that there is certain verbiage within various county documents that appears to be contradictory and confusing. Terms like “fair and reasonable” and “fair market value” seems nebulous and ripe for dispute.

In their quest for information regarding what they consider to be extraordinarily high increases, Nahhas and his supporters say that they have run into considerable opposition from county officials.

He claims that during his research into the slip fee hikes the county has been less than helpful.

At the August 8th meeting of the Small Craft Harbor Commission, Nahhas presented the commissioners and the audience with a PowerPoint presentation detailing what he feels are invalid reasons for the recent hikes in boat slip rates.

According to David Sommers, press deputy for Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes Marina del Rey, lessees base their rates on a survey of harbors and anchorages from Santa Barbara to Newport Beach, and then conduct a market comparison on the amount charged based on the size of the slip. That is the methodology that the Department of Beaches and Harbors uses to determine whether the Marina’s rates are fair.

“Dock prices can be raised within market rates,” said Sommers.

County officials have stated publicly that they are charging what they say are fair market rates for the rental of boat slips.

Nahhas, who has emerged as the leader of an organized group of boat owners, sailing enthusiasts and liveaboards, attacked several of the county’s definitions and justifications for charging the rate hikes.

“Fair market value is an oxymoron when you’re talking about recreation,” he charged. “Recreation is for all people. If you assess fair market value for recreational purposes, it will do away with what we know as recreation. We cannot sustain recreation under ‘fair market value’.”

As new developments are being built in the Marina, many developers are building larger slips for their anchorages, leaving owners of small boats with little or no possibility of finding a place for their vessels. That, according to some Marina del Rey activists, is a large part of the problem.

“My rent, in a 13-month period, went up $293 per month,” said liveaboard tenant Dorothy Franklin of the rent hike. “I’m now paying almost $900 for a 40-foot slip.”

Franklin’s worries are compounded by the fact that the anchorage where she currently rents is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with a new one that is part of the overall development plan.

“The other marinas that I am listed at are $300 per month more than what I am paying now,” she continued. “I have three small businesses, one of them is working on boats — this could create a hardship.”

“I don’t see a good future here for the boaters of Marina del Rey,” added Rudy Pel, who has had his boat in the Marina since the 1980s. “More and more boaters are getting pressed out. I’m disgusted by what’s happening.”

The rental increases have emerged as a major conflict as the identity of the harbor begins to undergo a metamorphosis. Many residents are concerned about losing small boat slips to larger ones, some wonder if their sailboat in a mast-up storage facility will soon be gone and still others wonder if their yacht club will survive the revamp.

Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, disputes the notion that boat owners, particular- ly those who own smaller boats, are being pushed out to cater to larger, sleeker vessels — a charge that many disgruntled tenants have leveled at the county.

“We are not looking to extract the small boat owners,” she told The Argonaut. “We are looking to have an appropriate mix of vessels.”

Silverstrom noted that market trends suggest that the public is purchasing larger boats. “That’s what the data show,” she says. “People are buying larger boats, and the demand for bigger boats is huge, but the supply is limited.”

Other boat owners, who primarily own smaller boats, are afraid to speak out publicly, according to Nahhas. They fear a backlash by the county or eviction by the lessees.

“There is a lot of apathy when talking to boat owners,” Nahhas lamented. “Nobody can afford to be evicted.”

Silverstrom mentioned that there are several anchorages that have vacancies for those who own smaller boats, despite charges that have been leveled at officials at Beaches and Harbors.

“We have vacancies in smaller slips in many of our harbors,” she said. A check of the department’s Web site listed vacancies at many, but not all, of the area’s marinas.

“There is no policy on trying to [drive out] liveaboards or owners of small boats,” Silverstrom reiterated. “We love liveaboardsÖ. They often act as our eyes and ears on the water.”

The department’s chief deputy director has heard complaints about rising slip fees during her 13 years with the county, but this is the first time she has seen an organized effort to challenge the way increases are tabulated.

“We encourage our lessees to charge fair market rates,” she said.

Silverstrom says her department will investigate any claim of overcharging by a lessee, she added.

“We believe that we have the authority to bring our lessees into compliance,” she says.

“To many of the tenants who have not had their rates raised in a while, the increases might seem a little high,” Silverstrom acknowledged. “But many of the lessees, during the years that there was a recession, kept their rates low for a number of years, and they are only beginning to increase them now.”

With the impending redevelopment of much of Marina del Rey, the boating community has been reeling for the last few years. For many, the desire to simply come and enjoy their boats in the Marina on the weekends has been replaced by the need to keep abreast of local politics. For these boaters, this newly acquired political acumen is at the heart of protecting the recreation they love.

Here is where the conflict lies. Lessees are in the business of renting space and earning money. Then there is the historical intention of the Marina to be a place for Los Angeles residents to recreate. A policy statement explaining these intentions issued by the county decades ago states that the area is “public use” and that it should provide facilities at a “fair and reasonable” cost. And many boaters fear that if things follow this new precedent, the harbor will be a space for only the rich to utilize.

“For myself, I’m afraid there will come a day that I won’t be able to afford my slip fee anymore,” Pel said.

His sentiments are echoed throughout Marina del Rey by other boat owners. Many feel that since the Small Craft Harbor Commission is concerned both with the financial success of the harbor and the fair treatment of its tenants, it is a losing battle. But commission chairman Harley Searcy insists that they want a “fair and reasonable” situation for all parties involved.

“We’re struggling with this just like you are,” he said during a recent meeting. “People need to realize it’s not easy for us either.”

Silverstrom added, “We’re balancing a lot of interests. “The lessees have a right to get maximum return on their investment, and at the same time we’re trying to be true to the purpose of the Marina.

“It’s a big stew.”

“Balance is great — but what is an acceptable profit?” Nahhas asked. “A fair return on their investment? What has the county done to provide for the needs of the recreational boaters?

“There really isn’t too much of a balance that the recreational boater sees. Some lessees are just making too much money and pocketing it — not putting it back into the properties. And that’s bad business for everyone.”

Calls to five members of the California Coastal Commission had not been returned at Argonaut press time.