Charges of negligent maintenance of docks, pleas for an independent investigation of boat rental slip fees and a proposal to look into the possibility of a county takeover of private docks in Marina del Rey were the items that stood at the forefront of a contentious special meeting of the Small Craft Harbor Commission meeting Thursday, October 11th.

The September Small Craft Harbor Commission meeting was canceled due to the lack of a quorum, and county officials have been advised to postpone or reschedule the meetings when this occurs.

Several owners of boats 35 feet and less have vociferously protested what many consider to be exorbitant increases to their boat slip rates over the last year. They contend that the formula that the county uses to determine the rates is faulty and an independent investigation should be initiated based on their distrust of the director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, Stan Wisniewski.

That rancor was on display at the October meeting during the public comment period, when several boating tenants alleged that many of their fellow boaters felt intimidated about speaking out publicly by the lessees who own the docks where their ships are moored.

Others claimed that there have been “numerous evictions” because of the inability to pay the new rates, which in some cases have increased 50 to 60 percent during a one year-period.

In addition, they allege that the concept of “fair market value” that county officials use as the method of calculating the fees is flawed and is not applicable to a coastal enclave that was created for recreational boating activities.

Wisniewski reported that a survey that his department conducted during September found that the slip rental rates in Marina del Rey for boats in the 25-, 30-, 35- and 45-foot categories were actually below the average market rates charged in other Southern California anchorages.

“For 40- and 50-foot categories, the average rates for Marina del Rey are above those at other harbors,” Wisniewski admitted. “However, the range of those rates is well within the range of rental rates in Southern California.

“We continue to believe that the Marina del Rey slip rental rates are at market.”

Approximately 75 people attended the meeting, where many boat owners disputed the county’s claims of improving the conditions of the docks at several of the harbors, which have been highlighted in previous public forums by boat owners as decrepit and in need of repair.

Greg Cook, who lives on a boat in the Marina, said that a dock manager had told him that no money had been appropriated for three months for dock repair.

“That happened after the [rate] increase,” said Cook, whose vessel is docked at Mariners Bay, a frequent target of the protesting boat tenants, who claim that the anchorage has implemented some of the highest increases in the Marina.

Pier 44 is another anchorage that has come under scrutiny for the condition of its docks. Officials at the Department of Beaches and Harbors say that they are working on resolving the problems at the anchorage.

“We are aware of the conditions of the Pier 44 docks, and have been very, very tough in terms of bringing up the maintenance conditions there, and we will be looking into that more and report back,” said Wisniewski.

Other speakers discussed what several small boat owners have alleged — and county officials deny — is a lack of slips for boating tenants who rent slips for 30-foot vessels and under.

“When any slip construction project goes before them, the California Coastal Commission is concerned about getting a good allocation of slips that meet market demand,” Wisniewski explained. “Historically in Marina del Rey, below 30 feet is where the predominant numbers of vacancies are.”

The California Department of Boating and Waterways sets guidelines for anchorages throughout the state that determine standards that all new anchorages must abide by.

“We are compliant with those standards, and we are held to those standards by the California Coastal Commission,” said Wisniewski.

Andy Bissette, who heads the Marina Boat Owners Association, echoed a contention held by some other angry owners of small boats — that there is a move to displace them and lure in newer, bigger boats by building new anchorages with slips that accommodate vessels 40 to 45 feet and larger.

“The increase in slip fees goes along with a general trend to get rid of the common boaters,” Bissette alleged, drawing applause from the audience. “This makes sense, from a financial [perspective] perhaps, so that the boat brokers can sell more new boats, get the smaller boats out of here because they think that they don’t spend enough money.”

Bissette feels that there is collusion among many of the lessees and the county in the rapid rise of slip rates.

“It is obvious to me that the county representatives and the Marina Lessees Association members have conspired to increase their revenues by reducing the total supply of slips, creating a shortage of them for profit reasons,” he alleged.

Wisniewski disputed that accusation.

“The reality is, the slips that are being built today are being built to current market demands and are being built according to the standards that the state Department of Boating and Waterways has issued and that the California Coastal Commission has approved for each of the development projects in the harbor,” he countered.

Tim Riley, who is with the Marina Lessees Association, agreed with the county’s formula of calculating the slip rates.

“The inevitable conclusion [of the county’s analysis] is that Marina del Rey offers, on average, its boat slips at rates more favorable to renters in Southern California,” Riley said. “While it is understandable that boat slip tenants experiencing sudden leaps in rates would be displeased, it is worth noting that not one anchorage in Marina del Rey is out of line with the rates charged to its boaters.”

Riley also talked about recent trends in boat sales, where bigger boats are outselling smaller vessels.

“As we move forward to bring new boat slips to the Marina, we have to be mindful that the marketplace is changing,” he noted.

Jon Nahaas, who has taken the lead in the fight to challenge the cost of slips in the Marina, also addressed the commission.

“After what we’ve heard tonight, we really think that we’re really not getting through to the commissioners,” he said.

He took exception to the data in the survey the county has conducted and said that he is in possession of information that contradicted what Wisniewski had proffered.

Commission chairman Harley Searcy asked Nahaas to bring his evidence regarding boat slip costs at other marinas in Southern California to the next meeting, and said that the commission would examine it.

Searcy went to great lengths to keep the meeting as civil as possible. After a brief verbal altercation with Nahaas, he briefly left the room, only to return at the same time that the commissioners were having difficulty with the audio system.

“That’s what happens when I leave the room,” the commission chair quipped in one of the evening’s lighter moments.

Searcy believes that the question of fair market value is one of the key components that have to be addressed regarding the boat slip fees.

“That’s the real issue,” he said. “Everything else flows from that.”

Commissioner Al Landini proposed having the commission consider a proposal to have the county assume control of the privately-owned docks in the Marina, which could conceivably result in lower slip rates.

“The county has many long-term leases in place,” Landini said. “There’s no way that they could go in and abridge those leases and take way the ability of those leaseholders to be able to continue with the renting of slips.

“But apparently some new slips are going to be coming under county control, and the county will be in the business of renting slips.”

Landini said he would like to see a county-operated municipal facility for boat slips — “not all slips, but certainly a segment of them, and I would point to Long Beach as a way of doing it.”

Commissioner Russell Lesser disagreed with Landini’s approach.

“I believe that government is inherently inefficient,” said Lesser, a former Manhattan Beach city councilman and planning commissioner. “If you want the county to start taking over leases and building those facilities, it’s not going to go down, it’s going to go up. So I think that’s a really bad idea.”

A proposal to draft a letter to the County Board of Supervisors that expressed the concerns regarding the increased slip fees was tabled after some boat owners in the audience objected to the way the letter was written. They bristled after learning that the document, which supposedly was to be written by the commission, had been drafted by the Department of Beaches and Harbors.

“This letter does not capture the sense of outrage that the community is feeling, and it needs to be stronger,” said Searcy.

The commissioners decided to take input from the public before writing the letter themselves, after Nahaas turns in his research on slip rates in other harbors.