NEWPORT — Can high-value commercial mooring permits in Newport Harbor be sold like liquor licenses?
City Solicitor Christopher Behan is in the process of answering that question in response to a critical letter sent by the state Coastal Resources Management Council in late April.
At issue are 17 commercial moorings purchased over time by the New York Yacht Club and available only to club members and their guests, city Harbormaster Tim Mills said.
CRMC is pretty emphatic about how it feels. The bottom of Newport Harbor, upon which the moorings sit, is state-owned land, and CRMC was “established to manage the State of Rhode Island’s coastal resources,” according to the letter from CRMC Deputy Director Jeffrey M. Willis.
“A mooring permit is a government-issued temporary license given to a specific person or entity, for a specific duration, to utilize a specific area of the public’s waters for a specific private purpose,” Willis wrote. “The permits do not confer property rights, perpetual or otherwise, on their holders and the holders may not assign, transfer or sell them.”
“It’s not necessarily just about the New York Yacht Club,” Mills said. “It’s about any given group that wants to exclude people. The harbor land is held as a public trust for the general public.”
If the city were to recognize transfer of a mooring permit from one entity to another entity, without the city’s involvement, “you would be impermissibly turning your authority over to someone else contrary to the city’s ordinance and CRMC’s regulations,” Willis wrote. “This is especially true if the transfer were the result of the sale and purchase of a commercial mooring permit.”
Of the more than 900 moorings the city oversees, about one-third are commercial, Mills said. These moorings are held by firms like Oldport Marine Services, Newport Mooring Services and Brenton Cove Moorings, but also are held by individuals. The commercial moorings are leased out by the mooring holders to transient boat owners. The city also holds about 30 moorings the harbormaster’s office rents out to transient boaters.
“The idea behind a commercial mooring is that it is a rentable mooring,” Mills said. “People can come from anywhere and rent them for a few days, a week or longer. But they have to be available to the general public on a first-come, first-serve basis. We want to continue that.”
The problem with the New York Yacht Club moorings is if you are from the general public and not a club member or guest, you cannot rent one of those moorings.
“That’s where the disconnect is for us,” Mills said.
The CRMC was contacted Monday to determine whether there would be any repercussions for the city or New York Yacht Club. CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said it is a city issue and it would be up to the harbormaster to implement the city’s harbor ordinance, as explained in the letter from Willis.
Willis points out the city’s ordinance says “a maximum of 25% of the total permitted mooring permits shall be allocated as commercial mooring permits” and “no individual or company shall own permits for more than 50 percent of the allowable rental mooring permits.”
When the city set up private and commercial moorings in the late 1970s, there was a mooring available to anyone who wanted one, Mills said.
However, with the explosion in boat ownership and interest in boating since then, moorings have become a hot commodity. There is a waiting list of more than 600 people for one of the private residential moorings, and the commercial moorings have become valuable to the holders of the permits.
Mills has heard from the boating community the commercial moorings are worth about $1,000 a foot, meaning the size of the boat the mooring can hold. So, for example, a mooring with a 500-pound mooring ball can hold a 40-foot boat, meaning that permit would be worth about $40,000.
However, permits are not supposed to be sold, especially given the long waiting lists for moorings and their scarcity compared to total demand.
“Why would anyone turn in a permit to the city if they could sell it?” Mills asked.
Stuart Streuli, director of communications for the New York Yacht Club, declined to comment when contacted Monday. He said he reached out to the club’s officers to see if they would like to provide a statement. The officers did not respond by press time Monday evening.
A message was left Monday with the office of solicitor Behan to check on when the city’s response to CRMC might be forthcoming. He was not available for comment.
“The New York Yacht Club is a good member of the boating community,” Mills added. “They are doing what they think is best for them.”