California Coastal Commission member William Burke has recommended that Los Angeles County officials refrain from reducing the number of available boat slips in Marina del Rey during its planned redevelopment of the coastal enclave.

Burke’s recommendation came at the Local Coastal Program meeting Wednesday, January 9th, held at the Marina del Rey Hotel by the California Coastal Commission.

While a number of subjects pertaining to the ongoing reconfiguration of Marina del Rey were discussed during the nearly ten-hour hearing, the matter of a substantial increase of slip rates in the Marina during the last 12 months was on the minds of many who attended the meeting.

Jon Nahhas, who has emerged as the spokesman for a group of small boat owners who believe that the Marina lessees and Los Angeles County officials are attempting to dislodge them from the Marina by raising the fees for boat slip rentals, saw Burke’s recommendation as a small victory for him and his fellow recreational boat owners.

“I think this was really a great recommendation to disallow the reduction of slips,” he told The Argonaut a few days after the meeting.

Andrew Bessette, who heads the Marina Boaters Association, isn’t so sure.

“It’s a little bit too late for that. Thousands of boat slips have already been removed,” Bessette said.

Bessette, a longtime Marina del Rey boat owner, feels that there has been an effort to eliminate the number of slips in order to give preference to developers and lessees who are refurbishing their investments or are building large-scale residential complexes that require a substantial number of parking spaces.

“By reducing the number of boat slips, (county officials) were able to get back a great deal of ground space for apartments,” Bessette asserted.

Officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors contend that there has been no concerted effort to remove smaller slips and replace them with larger slips, as many boat owners have charged.

It could take up to a year before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considers the commission’s recommendation on the reduction of slips, said Kerry Silverstrom, deputy director of Beaches and Harbors.

Stan Wisniewski, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, said in an interview in December that his department is aware of the growing concern among many recreational boaters who have come to regard the county’s policy regarding slip rates as unfair and designed to force them away from Marina del Rey.

“Recreational boating is critical,” said Wisniewski. “That’s what makes Marina del Rey valuable, that’s why a lot of people come here and that’s why a lot of people live here.”

Wisniewski, who has been with the Department of Beaches and Harbors for 33 years, says the complaints about slip fee rates are not anything new to the Marina. “It has been controversial since the day I got here,” he recalled. “You could repeat some of the testimony today and compare it to what you heard in 1975.”

The director called the current approach to establishing slip pricing “a true market mechanism” established by the Board of Supervisors, who set the legislative policies for the county.

“We want to ensure that boat slip tenants in Marina del Rey are charged what we define as a market level, and that is defined in the board policy for boating facilities within 60 miles of Marina del Rey,” Wisniewski explained. “If the slip rate charged here is within that range, we feel that’s okay.”

Nahhas and his supporters reject that claim. They accuse the county of catering to wealthy developers and the desire to generate more revenue on the backs of the recreational small boat owner.

“Fair market rate cannot be determined by taking a bunch of figures off the Internet,” Nahhas said. “[The slip rate pricing policy] should not be determined by lessees and what they want.”

Nahhas, a former teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, has called for an independent investigation into the manner in which fees are tabulated. He and others point to anchorages like Mariners Bay, whose rate increases are among the highest in the Marina. Dozens of boat owners have complained at meetings of the Small Craft Harbor Commission of receiving raises in the fees as much as 40-50 percent, and in some cases even higher.

“We obviously hate to see a 50 percent increase, like Mariners Bay implemented,” Wisniewski stated. “We’ve talked to the Lessees Association and we encouraged all of our lessees to implement modest increases.”

The hikes amount to approximately 7.8 percent, according to the Department of Beaches and Harbors.

“In my mind, it’s much better to increase it to 7.8 percent a year than to give one or two increases a year and then lower the boom and hit them with a 50 percent increase,” Wiesniewski said. “To me, that’s just not good management.”

Nahhas, who docks his vessel at Mariners Bay, says that he has seen his rate go up over 40 percent over the last year.

Wisniewski said that the management at Mariners Bay is aware of the county’s feelings regarding what many consider to be an excessive hike in slip prices.

“They are certainly aware that we are unhappy,” he said. “I think what the boating populace wants is some protection from the lessees that do 50 percent increases, and I understand that,” Wisniewski continued.

He believes that the policy that the supervisors have put in place is a very fair one.

“But I also believe that you have to have good property management implemented, and a 50 percent increase is not good property management,” he said. “I think (Mariners Bay’s) behavior is aberrant, and I’m happy to say that.”

As the county’s legislative body, the Board of Supervisors makes the final decision in determining the standard for setting slip prices.

“If the board wants to change its policy, that’s their decision,” Wisniewski said. “Whatever the board adopts, I’m here to manage it. That’s my job.”

County officials have said publicly that they consider the current method of determining slip rental rates to be equitable. “I feel that the current policy on slip pricing in Marina del Rey is a fair policy,” said Wisniewski.

Department of Beaches and Harbors officials say that they have examined the slip rates in Marina del Rey and other than Mariners Bay, they have not found anything to be excessive. “We would take action if we were to learn that one of our lessees was not charging rates that fall within the market survey,” Wisniewski said.

Bessette was particularly critical of Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey. “Knabe is owned by the developers,” he accused. “With the reduction of boat slips comes a shortage of boat slips, and a reduction of slip revenues, so slip fees are being increased exponentially.”

Nahhas spoke before the supervisors at their meeting on Tuesday, January 15th. With commissioner Burke’s recommendation, he is hopeful that the board takes small boat owners like him into consideration.

“Hopefully, this may open the door to them sitting down and listening to their constituents,” he said.

Many longtime boat owners, like Bessette, may get discouraged, but they say they are determined to challenge the county’s slip fee policy.

“We’re not finished,” he vowed. “We have just begun to fight.”